The process of criminal justice in the US will vary some, depending if it is a federal or a state crime. However, the general criminal justice process in the US during and after the initial arrest is as follows:
If a police officer has probable cause that you have committed a crime, they generally can arrest you. In some cases, the officer may need to get a warrant to take you into custody.
If you commit a felony or a misdemeanor in the presence of a police officer, you can be arrested without a warrant.
If the police officer has probable cause to believe that you committed a felony, even if the crime was not done with the officer there, you can be arrested.
Arrests can be done in public, either with or without a warrant. But if the police want to arrest you in a private area, they have to get an arrest warrant.
In most cases, police have a short time period after an arrest when they must charge you with a crime or release you. This normally is 24-48 hours.
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Complaint, Information and Indictment
The police may decide to file criminal charges against you, before or after they arrest you. The filing of written charges – a complaint – begins the criminal justice process. A prosecutor also can put the criminal justice process into motion by filing another type of written charge known as an ‘information.’
When a complaint or an information is filed, it then allows the police to keep you in custody for additional legal proceedings, such as arraignment and bail.
Note that in a federal criminal investigation and in about 25 states, defendants are entitled to indictment by grand jury. This means that your jury has citizens on it that have to hear the evidence presented by the prosecution to determine if there is probable cause that a crime was committed, and that there is probable cause that you committed the crime.
Other states have what is called a preliminary hearing, where the judge looks at the evidence from the prosecution to decide if there is probable cause to support charges against you.
In all cases above, the document that results is simply an accusation against you. It is not proof that you committed the crime.
The arraignment is the formal presentation of the charges against you in court. This also may be called a preliminary hearing, depending upon the state. During the arraignment, the charges against you are read by the judge, and you are asked to plead guilty or not guilty. Your lawyer may be present, or the attorney appointed by the court to represent you.
Bail is money or an asset that you put forth as security to ensure that you will show up for future criminal proceedings, including the trial and sentencing.
Bail may be paid in cash, as a bail bond, or a pledge of property.
A bail bond is a contract with a bail bondsman, where the bondsman pays your bail, in return for a negotiable fee.
Note that there is no guaranteed right to bail. If the judge thinks that you may flee or not appear, or if the crime is serious, then bail can be denied. Or, the judge can set bail so high that there is no way for you to pay it.
For less serious crimes, and for people with clear ties to the community, such as family or a good job, you may be released on a low bail, or released on your own recognizance without bail.
After charges are filed against you, your lawyer can negotiate with the prosecution to see if a plea bargain can be reached. A plea bargain will involve you pleading guilty to lesser charges, or pleading guilty to just one charge in some cases.
A plea bargain can include the agreement with the prosecution to recommend a certain sentence in exchange for you agreeing to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Your lawyer will consider many things as he or she decides to plea bargain on your behalf. It depends upon how strong the evidence is against you, and the potential penalties if you go to trial and lose.
If a plea agreement is not arranged, then the trial begins soon after. The trial must be held quickly, unless you waive your right to a speedy trial so that you can prepare your defense better.
If you are charged with a crime that can be punished by 6+ months in jail or prison, then you can have a public trial by jury. You also can choose a bench trial, where the judge does the facting finding instead of a jury.
Some defendants may choose a bench trial because the case is very technical and the jury may not understand the case well enough. Or, the case is of a sort that you fear the jury may be so upset by the nature of the charges that they may lose their objectivity.
If you have a jury trial, then jury selection comes into play. Both you and the prosecution can challenge jurors for cause, meaning you or they think that that juror will not be objective.
During the trial, you have the right to present witnesses any evidence in defense of charges against you. You also have the right to cross examine witnesses brought by the prosecutors. Once the prosecutor is done, the judge will tell the jury their instructions, according to the law. Both sides then sum up their arguments to the jury. Then the jury is dismissed to make its decision.
The jurors in the case will go to deliberate in private. It can take minutes, hours, or even weeks. After they reach their verdict, the finding is read in court.
You can be found innocent or guilty of all, some or none of the charges against you. You also might be convicted of a lesser crime that what was charged in your indictment.
If you are found guilty, you have the right to appeal to an appellate court. Most US states have a multi-level appellate system. There are middle level appeals courts hearing appeals from trial courts. Higher level appellate courts, sometimes the Supreme Court of that state, will hear appeals from the middle level appeals courts.