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Criminal Procedure

From Probable Cause To Appeal: The Criminal Procedure Cycle

To return to the earlier view of the criminal justice system from the "bottom," the following provides a rough outline of the procedure whereby a suspect is sent through the legal process. The latter term, of course, suggests a factory-like atmosphere, which in turn carries with it negative connotations regarding the attitude of the justice system toward the individual. In fact the establishment of a routine structure for criminal procedure suggests an underlying desire, however imperfectly realized, to treat all defendants the same.

The process begins with the report of a crime, or with the law enforcement officer's direct awareness of a crime in progress. There follows a pre-arrest investigation, at which time the officer may, within strict guidelines which include the requirement of a search warrant, obtain information about the suspect and the crime which may lead to arrest. If a court later determines that the officer obtained evidence illegally at this or any point in the process, then that evidence will have to be suppressed or excluded from the legal record.

The officer having determined sufficient grounds for arrest, he or she reads the defendant his Fifth Amendment rights. This statement, often called the Miranda rights (Miranda v. Arizona [1966]), contains words famous to viewers of almost any crime drama on television: "You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you...." Like the Exclusionary Rule which governs the exclusion of evidence obtained illegally, the reading of the Miranda rights is a provision that results from a Supreme Court decision, rather than from a specific stipulation in the Constitution or its amendments.

Police may spend a great deal of time leading up to the arrest, but in accordance with the constitutional guarantee of the right to a speedy trial, the next stages proceed as quickly as possible. The suspect is booked, and usually is placed in a temporary jail cell pending charges. The arresting officer may then make a post-arrest investigation, and assuming that the evidence seems sufficient to do so, will then decide to charge the suspect. The officer files a complaint, under sworn oath, stating that he or she believes that the suspect committed the crime in question. Assuming that the magistrate (or judge) agrees that there is probable cause, the suspect then appears before the magistrate for a bail decision, and to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

The case only goes to trial--and hence bail becomes an issue--if the defendant pleads not guilty. Assuming the judge has set bail at levels which the defendant can meet, either through his own resources or through the use of a bail bondsman, the defendant is released pending trial. After a preliminary hearing, the case will be bound over for trial and, assuming it involves violation of a federal statute, will be taken before a grand jury for review. This hearing is called an arraignment and the purpose is for the grand jury to investigate a crime and determine if there is sufficient evidence to indict the accused, sending the case to trial. (State laws regarding grand juries vary.) After arraignment and pre-trail motions, the trial begins. Here a key element is the requirement that guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt." This does not mean that guilt has to be proven beyond all doubt, which in any case would be impossible. To be sure, the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a vague one--perhaps necessarily so--but is usually interpreted to suggest such a doubt as would cause reasonble men or women to hesitate to convict on the evidence provided.

Assuming the defendant is found guilty in the trial, sentencing--as well as appeals and post-conviction proceedings--will follow. As suggested above, this only a rough and generalized outline of criminal procedure; in fact the process is an exceedingly intricate one, woven with a rich history of judicial opinions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesCriminal Procedure - Contrasting Perspectives On The Legal System, Four Constitutional Cornerstones, Habeas Corpus And Other Guarantees, From Probable Cause To Appeal: The Criminal Procedure Cycle