The Criminal Process: How it Works

Start with the basics of the criminal justice process.

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by Anne Lane
The criminal process typically begins with a stop or an arrest. It could end at any point up to the time of sentencing, depending on the facts and circumstances of any particular case. You have certain rights at every stage of the criminal process. The following is a brief explanation of each step from a stop through sentencing.

You may be stopped for questioning by the police. A stop is not the same as an arrest. A stop occurs when a police officer detains you to ask you questions, but does not move you to a different location. A police officer should not stop you unless he has a reasonable belief that you have violated the law. Even though you are not under arrest at this point, you do not have to answer any questions that the police officer asks you. The police may also ask to search you or your vehicle. The police officer cannot search your car without your consent unless he has "probable cause". "Probable cause" is a legal determination that you won't be able to challenge until later. Because of this, you may want to tell the police officer that you do not consent to a search of your vehicle. The police officer may perform a search anyway, but if it is later determined that there was not probable cause, at least you won't have consented to the search. The police officer could decide at this point that there is no reason to arrest you and your involvement in the criminal process could end here.

Each jurisdiction has different rules regarding when an individual can be placed under arrest. In general, an officer can arrest you if he has probable cause to believe that you committed a felony, or if he sees you commit a misdemeanor, or if there is a warrant for your arrest. When you are arrested you will be taken into police custody.

When you are placed under arrest, the police must inform you of your constitutional rights. This includes your right to remain silent and your right to obtain the advice of an attorney. When you are arrested you should be given an opportunity to contact a lawyer or anyone else you want to let know what has happened to you. You are not limited to a single call. Once you are arrested there is a limited amount of time before you must either be charged with a crime or released. If you have been held for an unreasonable amount of time without being charged, your attorney can ask a judge to order your release.

After you are arrested and charged with a crime you will be booked. You will be finger printed. Your name and the crime that you have been charged with will be entered into the official police record. Your personal belongings will be taken from you for safe keeping while you are in custody. They will be inventoried and you will be asked to sign the inventory. Depending on the charge and the circumstances of your case, you may be released and ordered to appear for your hearing in court. You may be released on your own recognizance or you may have to put up a certain amount of bail to secure your release.

In other instances, you may remain in police custody until there is a court hearing on your release. If this happens, you will be asked to enter a plea. You can enter a plea of "not guilty", "no contest", or "guilty". If you enter a not guilty plea the judge will decide on the terms of your release or if you will be released pending your trial.

If you enter a plea of no contest or of guilty, there will not be a trial. In this situation, you will either be sentenced immediately or sentenced at a later time. If you are to be sentenced at some point in the future, the judge will determine whether you should be held in custody until sentencing or whether you should be released and ordered to appear for sentencing.

If you entered a not guilty plea you will have a trial. At the end of your trial, if you are found not guilty, you will be free to go, and, for you, the criminal process will end at that point. If you are found guilty, you will go through the sentencing process as described above.

Having a lawyer with experience in criminal defense can make a tremendous difference to the outcome of your case. He or she can help you through every stage of the criminal process.

More Information

To find out more about how the criminal law process works, see Steps in a Criminal Case on Nolo.com.

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