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Criminal Courts - Bringing A Case To Trial

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A criminal case normally proceeds through several stages. Following arrest, a defendant is held in custody and booked, meaning personal information is recorded about the individual including fingerprints and a photograph. The defendant is usually questioned or interrogated, probably with a lawyer present. The police then turn any evidence they have over to the prosecutor.

If the case involves a serious felony federal crime, the U.S. Constitution requires that a prosecutor presents the evidence to a grand jury. Grand juries are composed of citizens chosen from the community who determine in a closed (not open to the public) hearing if there is probable cause or enough evidence to have a trial. Only prosecutors present evidence in grand jury hearings; lawyers are not allowed nor do they try to defend their clients.

About half the U.S. states hold grand juries while the others hold preliminary hearings before lower court judges. In preliminary hearings, the defendant may be present and contest the prosecutor's charges. Grand juries and preliminary hearings are not held for lesser crimes or misdemeanors.

Court proceedings begin when a prosecutor files a complaint (if a misdemeanor) or submits a bill of indictment from a grand jury (for felonies) to the court with jurisdiction. The complaint or indictment formally asks the court to take the case. If the court accepts the case from the prosecutor, the defendant is brought in for an arraignment before the court that will try the case. The charges are read, the defendant is advised of his or her rights, a trial date is set, and bail is considered.

Bail is the money defendants pay to ensure their appearance for trial, allowing them freedom until then. If the defendant does not appear for trial, he or she loses the money (the court gets to keep it). If the defendant cannot afford bail or the judge refuses bail, then the defendant remains in custody or jail until trial. If the defendant is considered a respected member of the community, he or she is usually released on his or her "own recognizance," meaning the defendant is released from custody on the merits of his or her honor or good character and not forced to post bail.



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