Street Law: A Course in Practical Law

Chapter 13: Criminal Justice Process: Proceedings Before Trial

Chapter Overviews

Every criminal case goes through several standard proceedings before it reaches court. In some cases, these proceedings eliminate the need for a trial.

Booking and Initial Appearance  Booking is the formal process of making a police record of the arrest. The accused person first provides some basic information for identification purposes and then is fingerprinted and photographed. Within a short time of arrest and booking, the accused must appear before a judge. The defendant has an attorney appointed or is given the chance to obtain one. At this stage, the judge decides if the defendant will be released on bail or remain in jail while awaiting trial.

Bail and Pretrial Release  Bail is an amount of money that an arrested person puts up in order to be released from jail while waiting for trial. The purpose of bail is to make sure the defendant appears at the trial. If the person fails to return for trial, the court keeps the money. Sometimes the court will release a person before trial without requiring bail because there is very little chance the person will attempt to flee.

Information  A prosecutor's information details the nature and the circumstances of the charges brought against a defendant. This information is a formal criminal charge filed with the court based on the evidence collected during the initial investigation of the case.

Preliminary Hearing  A preliminary hearing is a screening process used in felony cases to decide if there is enough evidence to make the defendant stand trial. If enough evidence supports the prosecutor's case, the defendant will proceed to trial. If the judge finds no probable cause, the case may be dismissed—but this does not necessarily mean that the case is over.

Grand Jury  A grand jury is used by many states in place of the prosecutor's information or a preliminary hearing. It is a group of 16 to 23 people who determine whether there is enough evidence to show that a person has committed a crime and should go to trial. Only the prosecutor submits evidence to the grand jury. Neither the accused nor his or her attorney is allowed to appear. A judge is not present and rules of evidence do not apply.

Felony Arraignment and Pleas  After an indictment or information is issued, the defendant must appear in court to enter a plea. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will set a date for sentencing. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge will set a date for trial and ask whether the defendant would like a trial by jury.

Pretrial Motions  A motion is a formal request that the court make a ruling or take some other action. Common motions include a defendant's motion to obtain certain evidence from the prosecution, a request for more time to prepare the case, a request for the trial to be held in a different location, or a motion that certain evidence should be excluded at the trial.

Plea Bargaining  The plea bargaining process is often used to obtain guilty pleas before the trial begins. Most criminal cases never go to trial because most defendants plead guilty beforehand. In a plea bargain, the accused often will agree to plead guilty in exchange for a somewhat reduced sentence.

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