Criminal Proceedings:

     This page is continued from Getting Started >>>> Criminal Law Self-Help >>>> Judicial Proceedings:


Stages of a Criminal Case:

     Criminal prosecution develops in a series of stages, beginning with an arrest and ending at a point before, during or after trial. [1]  This page is carefully organized to give the beginner and the expert a step-by-step walkthrough for each stage of a criminal prosecution (not be confused with a civil proceeding); although this walkthough is particular to federal cases, and integrates the Federal Rules of Procedure throughout it, this walkthrough is also applicable to state cases and Indian Country cases as wellIf this is your first time to this site, be sure to read the Getting Started  and the Criminal Law Self-Help sections of the site first

     This walkthrough begins with definitions for the terms “criminal proceeding” and “criminal prosecution,” followed by descriptions for each stage of the proceedings: the 1. Arrest, and Search and Seizure, 2. Bail, 3. Arraignment, 4. Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury Proceedings, 5. Pretrial Motions, 6. Trial, 7. Sentencing, and 8. Appeal.

criminal proceeding:
(often plural) (16c)

1. A judicial hearing, session, or prosecution in which a court adjudicates whether a person has committed a crime or, having already fixed guilt, decides on the offender’s punishment; a criminal hearing or trial. [2]

1. A proceeding in court in the prosecution of a person charged or to be charged with the commission of a crime, contemplating the conviction and punishment of the person charged or to be charged. State ex rel. Sweezer v Green, 360  Mo1249, 232 SW2d 897, 24 ALR2d 340.

A proceeding against a juvenile offender is in no sense a criminal proceeding, where it does not contemplate punishment for an offense, but prevention of a an erring minor from becoming a criminal. State v Freeman, 81 Mont 132, 262 P 168, 171. [3]

1. Any phase or aspect of a criminal prosecution, or the prosecution as a whole. [4]

criminal prosecution:

1. a criminal proceeding in which an accused person is tried <the conspiracy trial involved the prosecution of seven defendants>. — aka prosecution. [2]

1. The use of the processes of the law to accuse or charge a person with the commission of a crime, to bring him before a court, to convict him of the offense, and to impose upon him such punishment as is provided by law for the offense.  Although sometimes instituted by an individual, a criminal prosecution is not in any sense an action between the person instituting it and the prisoner. Anno: 46 ALR 463.

A preliminary investigation is not a criminal prosecution within the Sixth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Anno: 93 L Ed 992. [3]

1. The process of arresting, charging, trying, and sentencing a person for the commission of a crime.  A criminal sentence generally involves the imposition fo a fine, imprisonment, or death.  A criminal prosecution is brought by the state, as opposed to a civil action, which is brought by a  private party. [4]

     Only the government initiates a criminal case, usually through the U.S. attorney’s office, in coordination with a law enforcement agency.  Allegations of criminal behavior should be brought to the local police, the FBI, or another appropriate law enforcement agency. [5]

Stage One;
The Arrest:

     Criminal prosecution typically begins with an arrest by a police officer.  A police officer may arrest a person if

(1) the officer observes the person committing a crime;
(2) the officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed by that person; or
(3) the officer makes the arrest under the authority of a valid arrest warrant (a “warranted arrest“).

     After the arrest, the police books the suspect. When the police complete the booking process, they place the suspect in custody.  If the suspect committed a minor offense, the police may issue a citation to the suspect with instructions to appear in court at a later date. [1]

The Fourth Amendment

probable cause for arrest – reasonable ground to suspect that a person has committed or is committing a crime or that a place contains specific items connected with a crime.

Various Types of Lawful Arrests:

warranted arrest – an arrest made under authority of a warrant.

  • arrest warrant – issued by a disinterested magistrate shown probable cause; directs a law-enforcement officer to arrest and take a person into custody.

warrantless arrest – a legal arrest, without a warrant, carried out by a peace officer or private citizen (“citizen’s arrest“), when there’s absolute certainty or probable cause the suspect committed a crime. — aka arrest without a warrant.

  • citizen’s arrest – may be done on grounds that (1) a public offense was committed in their presence, or (2) they have reasonable cause to believe the arrestee has committed a felony.

 Various Forms of Unlawful Arrests:

dragnet arrest – a sweeping arrest of people suspected of possible involvement in criminal activity or a civil disturbance. — aka round-up; wholesale arrest.

malicious arrest – causing an arrest by maliciously bringing a suit upon false charges, or maliciously making a false affidavit.

Search and Seizure:
Reasonable or Unreasonable?

stop-and-frisk – a police officer’s brief detention, questioning, and search of a person for a concealed weapon when they reasonably suspect the person committed or is about to commit a crime.

unreasonable search and seizure – the searching of one’s person, home, or vehicle, without probable cause, and without a warrant issued upon probable cause.

interrogation – formal, systematic, intensive questioning by the police, usually of a person arrested for or suspected of committing a crime.

Stage Two;

     If a suspect in police custody is granted bail, the suspect may pay the bail amount in exchange for a release. Release on bail is contingent on the suspect’s promise to appear at all scheduled court proceedings. Bail may be granted to a suspect immediately after booking or at a later bail review hearing. Alternatively, a suspect may be released on his “own recognizance.” A suspect released on his own recognizance need not post bail, but must promise in writing to appear at all scheduled court appearances. Own recognizance release is granted after the court considers the seriousness of the offense, and the suspect’s criminal record, threat to the community and ties to family and employment. [1]

bail – the process by which a person is released from custody on the condition they promise to appear in court for their scheduled appearance.

  • bail bond – a bond given to a court by a criminal defendant’s surety to guarantee the defendant will duly appear in court and, if the defendant is jailed, to obtain the defendant’s release from confinement.  Often used interchangeably with the term recognizance.

Stage Three;

     The suspect makes his first court appearance at the arraignment. During arraignment, the judge reads the charges filed against the defendant in the complaint and the defendant chooses to plead “guilty,” “not guilty” or “no contest” to those charges. The judge will also review the defendant’s bail and set dates for future proceedings.

     The majority of criminal cases terminate when a criminal defendant accepts a plea bargain offered by the prosecution.    In a plea bargain, the defendant chooses to plead guilty before trial to the charged offenses, or to lesser charges in exchange for a more lenient sentence or the dismissal of related charges. [1]

arraignment – the initial step in a criminal prosecution; the defendant is brought before the court to hear the charges and enter a plea.

  • plea colloquy – an open-court dialogue, usually just before the defendant enters a plea, where the judge ensures the defendant understands the consequences of the plea.

Various Types of Pleas:

guilty plea – the defendant’s formal admission in court of having committed the charged offense.

  • Alford plea – a guilty plea, entered as part of a plea bargain, while not admitting guilt. — aka (in New York) Serrano plea.
  • blind plea – a guilty plea made without the promise of a concession from the judge or prosecutor.

not guilty plea – denial of having committed the charged offense.

no contest – a plea by which the defendant does not contest or admit guilt. Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b). — aka nolo contendere.

plea affidavit – a sworn, notarized, written guilty plea to a misdemeanor, traffic violation, or other lesser offense, usually submitted in absentia.

plea bargain – a negotiated agreement between a prosecutor and defendant whereby the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to one of multiple charges, usually in exchange for a more lenient sentence or dismissal of other charges. — aka plea agreement; negotiated plea; sentence bargain. — plea-bargain, vb. — plea-bargaining, n.

Stage Four;
Preliminary Hearing
Grand Jury Proceedings:

     The government generally brings criminal charges in one of two ways: by a “bill of information” secured by a preliminary hearing or by grand jury indictment. In the federal system, cases must be brought by indictment.  States, however, are free to use either process. Both preliminary hearings and grand juries are used to establish the existence of probable cause. If there is no finding of probable cause, a defendant will not be forced to stand trial.

     A preliminary hearing, or preliminary examination, is an adversarial proceeding in which counsel questions witnesses and both parties makes arguments.  The judge then makes the ultimate finding of probable cause.  The grand jury, on the other hand, hears only from the prosecutor.  The grand jury may call their own witnesses and request that further investigations be performed. The grand jury then decides whether sufficient evidence has been presented to indict the defendant. [1]

     At the beginning of a federal criminal case, the principal actors are the U.S. Attorney (the prosecutor) and the grand jury.  The U.S. Attorney represents the United States in most court proceedings, including all criminal prosecutions. The grand jury reviews evidence presented by the U.S. Attorney and decides whether it is sufficient to require a defendant to stand trial. [5]

preliminary hearing or grand jury proceeding – to determine whether or not there is probable cause.

  • probable cause – a reasonable amount of suspicions, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person’s belief that certain facts are probably true.
  • information – a complaint or affidavit, made by a prosecutor, alleging probable cause to suspect a crime, in order to bind a defendant over, to await action by the grand jury.
  • preliminary hearing – any number of “Probable Cause Hearings” to determine if there’s sufficient evidence to hold trial, or if any evidence ought be suppressed due to Fourth Amendment violation.
    • bailable offense – a criminal charge for which a defendant may be released from custody after providing proper security.

grand jury – usually 16 to 23 people who sit one month to a year in ex parte proceedings, to decide whether to issue an indictment.

  • indictment – a formal written accusation of a felony, made by a grand jury and presented to a court for prosecution against the accused person.

    • bill of indictment – an instrument containing a criminal charge, presented to a grand jury by a prosecutor, used by the jury to determine if there’s enough evidence to formally charge the accused with a crime.  After it is found and all the blanks are filled in, it is called an “indictment.”
    • true bill – an indorsement that a grand jury enters onto a bill of indictment when it indicts a criminal defendant; by writing “true bill” on the bill, the determination that a criminal charge should go before a petty jury for trial is officially indorsed by the grand jury. — aka billa vera.
    • no bill – an indorsement by a grand jury on a bill of indictment, indicating “not found” or “not a true bill”; the party is then discharged without further answer.  A grand jury may instead write “not found,” “not a true bill,” or “ignoramus” to indicate the same thing.


  • presentment – a written accusation returned by a grand jury on its own motion, without a prosecutor’s previous indictment request, which may be used by the prosecutor as the basis for a true bill or indictment.

Stage Five;
Pretrial Motions:

     Pretrial motions are brought by both the prosecution and the defense in order to resolve final issues and establish what evidence and testimony will be admissible at trial. [1]

pretrial discovery – conducted before trial to reveal documents and facts, develop evidence, and prevent parties from surprising each other at trial.

Stage Six;

     At trial, the judge or the jury will either find the defendant guilty or not guilty.  The prosecution bears the burden of proof in a criminal trial.  Thus, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crimes charged.  The defendant has a constitutional right to a jury trial in most criminal matters.  A jury or judge makes the final determination of guilt or innocence after listening to opening and closing statements, examination and cross-examination of witnesses and jury instructions.  If the jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict, the judge may declare a mistrial, and the case will either be dismissed or a new jury will be chosen. If a judge or jury finds the defendant guilty, the court will sentence the defendant. [1]

trial – wherein the judge or the jury will either find the defendant guilty or not guilty after hearing either side and cross-examination of witnesses; the prosecution bears the burden of proof.

  • opening statement – – each attorney previews of the case, the evidence to be presented, and the issue(s) at hand. aka opening argument; opening address.
  • closing statement – a final request to the fact-finder to consider the evidence and to apply the law in one’s favor; afterward (in a jury trial) the judge ordinarily instructs the jury on the law that governs the case. — aka closing argument.
  • guilt phase – the part of the criminal trial where the fact-finder determines if the defendant committed a crime.

Stage Seven;

     During the sentencing phase of a criminal case, the court determines the appropriate punishment for the convicted defendant. In determining a suitable sentence, the court will consider a number of factors, including the nature and severity of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, the defendant’s personal circumstances and the degree of remorse felt by the defendant. [1]

allocution – a trial judge’s formal address to a convicted defendant, to ask if they wish to make a statement or present information that could potentially mitigate or cancel the sentence.allocutory, adj.

victim-impact statement – a statement read into the record during sentencing to inform the judge or jury of the financial, physical, and psychological impact of the crime on the victim and their family. — aka VIS.

victim allocution – a crime victim’s address to the court before sentencing, usually urging a harsher punishment.

penalty phase – in a criminal trial, where the fact-finder determines the punishment for a defendant who has been found guilty. — aka sentencing phase.

Stage Eight;

     An individual convicted of a crime may ask that his or her case be reviewed by a higher court. If that court finds an error in the case or the sentence imposed, the court may reverse the conviction or find that the case should be re-tried. [1]


Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is compiled in accordance with Fair Use.

[1]: Justia Criminal Law Stages of a Criminal Case:

[2]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black & Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-62130-6

[3]: Ballantine’s Law Dictionary with Pronunciations
Third Edition
 by James A. Ballantine (James Arthur 1871-1949).  Edited by William S. Anderson.  © 1969 by THE LAWYER’S CO-OPERATIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY.  Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-30931

[4]:  Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.

[5]: United States Courts, “Criminal Cases”:


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