Home Criminal Law The Steps of Criminal Procedure: From Investigation to Sentencing

The Steps of Criminal Procedure: From Investigation to Sentencing

Criminal procedure refers to the process through which government enforces substantive criminal law. It outlines how authorities investigate, charge, prosecute, and sentence those suspected of crimes. Here is an in-depth look at the key stages of criminal procedure.

Criminal Procedure

Investigation: Gathering Evidence and Identifying Suspects

After a crime occurs, police begin gathering information to identify who committed the offense. Criminal investigations aim to collect evidence that will determine whether charges should be filed.

Examining the Crime Scene

Investigations start by examining the scene of the crime. Police look for physical evidence like weapons, fingerprints, blood, or other DNA evidence. They also take photographs and interview witnesses. Analyzing how the crime occurred helps investigators establish leads.

Developing Leads Through Witness Interviews

Witness interviews allow police to find leads on potential suspects. Officers ask witnesses detailed questions about what they saw or know about the crime. These interviews may take place at the scene or a police station. Investigators look for consistencies and inconsistencies in witness statements.

Identifying Potential Suspects

Investigators use evidence from the crime scene and witness statements to identify potential suspects. They look into alibis, connections to the victim, and other clues that may link a person to the crime. Police may put together photo lineups for witnesses to identify the perpetrator.

Searching Records and Databases

Law enforcement agencies have access to various records and databases that can aid investigations. Running a suspect’s name through the system may reveal criminal history, fingerprint matches, or other useful background information. Investigators also search records for clues like ownership of a getaway vehicle.

Securing a Warrant for Further Investigation

If police have probable cause that a suspect committed a crime, they can get a search warrant from a judge. This allows them to legally search the suspect’s home, car, or other property for evidence related to the crime. Any evidence found can help substantiate charges.

Making an Arrest

Once police gather enough evidence, they may make an arrest. To arrest a suspect without a warrant, officers need probable cause that the person committed the crime. With a warrant, police can arrest the suspect wherever they are located. After arrest, suspects are photographed, fingerprinted and booked.

Consulting the Prosecutor on Charges

After the arrest, investigators meet with the prosecuting attorney to discuss whether charges should be filed. Prosecutors determine if there is enough reliable evidence to prosecute the suspect successfully beyond a reasonable doubt. They may request more evidence or interviews before agreeing to press charges.

Bail: Allowing Release Pending Trial

After police make an arrest, the suspect appears before a judge who determines whether they will await trial in jail or be released on bail. Bail is money or property given to the court to ensure the defendant’s appearance at trial.

Right to Bail

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail. However, the Bail Reform Act allows judges to deny bail in cases where the defendant poses a danger to the community or is a flight risk. States can choose to grant an absolute right to bail for non-capital offenses.

Bail Factors

Judges consider factors like the severity of the charges, criminal history, employment, and community ties when setting bail. Typically, the more serious the crime, the higher the bail amount. Defendants deemed likely to flee or harm the public may be denied bail.

Bail Bonds

Many defendants use a bail bondsman to post bail. The defendant pays the bondsman a small percentage of the full bail amount as a fee. The bondsman then assumes responsibility for the full bail if the defendant fails to appear in court. This allows suspects to get out of jail before trial.

Pretrial Supervision

As a condition of release, defendants out on bail may be subject to pretrial supervision. This can include drug testing, GPS monitoring, restricted travel, or only being allowed to leave home for certain purposes. Pretrial supervision ensures defendants abide by release conditions.

Charging the Defendant: The Formal Accusation

The next step in criminal procedure is formally charging the defendant with a specific crime. The charging document sets forth the alleged facts and offenses.

The Criminal Complaint

A prosecutor drafts a criminal complaint spelling out the factual basis for the charges. This document typically includes a statement of probable cause describing the evidence against the defendant. Defendants receive a copy of the complaint when charged.

The Information

An information serves as the charging document for cases starting in the trial court rather than through a preliminary hearing. It states the specific crimes with relevant facts just like a complaint. However, additional evidence is usually not included.

The Grand Jury Indictment

Complex federal or state felony cases may use grand jury indictments to charge defendants. A grand jury hears evidence presented only by the prosecutor and votes on whether probable cause supports specific charges. If a majority votes yes, the grand jury issues an indictment.

The Arraignment Hearing

After charges are filed, the defendant appears in court for an arraignment hearing. At this proceeding, the judge:

– Ensures the defendant has legal representation
– Reads the charges to the defendant
– Accepts the defendant’s plea

Common pleas at an arraignment include guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The judge also sets bail if not already determined. Defendants who cannot afford an attorney are appointed one.

Plea Bargaining: Negotiating Charges and Sentences

The vast majority of criminal cases end in plea bargains rather than trials. Plea bargaining allows prosecutors and defendants to negotiate outcomes.

Why Plea Bargain?

Both sides have incentives to plea bargain. Prosecutors conserve resources by avoiding lengthy trials. Defendants reduce potential penalties and get resolution faster. Trials are time-consuming and uncertain for all parties.

Plea Bargain Basics

In a plea deal, defendants agree to plead guilty in exchange for charging or sentencing concessions by the prosecutor. Common concessions include:

– Pleading to lesser charges
– Dropping some charges
– Sentence recommendations to the judge

Judges must approve plea agreements. Defendants waive many rights by pleading guilty, including the right to a jury trial.

Role of Defense Attorney

Defense lawyers negotiate plea bargains on their client’s behalf. Their job is getting the best deal possible, but the defendant decides whether to accept it. Attorneys advise clients by explaining the strengths of the case and options.

Benefits and Risks

Benefits of plea bargaining for defendants include quicker case resolution, certainty of outcome, and avoiding maximum penalties. Risks include foregoing the right to trial and possibility of getting a harsher sentence than the plea offer.

Trial: The Adversarial Court Process

If no plea agreement is reached, the case proceeds to a criminal trial. This adversarial court process seeks to determine the defendant’s guilt.

Selecting a Jury

Criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury. During jury selection, the prosecution and defense examine and question potential jurors to seat a fair jury. Cases with significant pretrial publicity or sensitive issues may require changing venue to find impartial jurors.

Opening Statements

After the jury is sworn in, each side gives opening statements previewing their main arguments and evidence in the case. Prosecutors give their statement first followed by defense counsel. Neither side presents evidence yet or calls witnesses.

The Prosecution’s Case

The prosecution presents their evidence and witnesses first. Through direct examination by the prosecuting attorneys, witnesses testify about the investigation, their observations related to the crime, forensic evidence, or other relevant facts.

Cross-Examination by the Defense

After each prosecution witness testifies, defense attorneys can cross-examine them. Cross-examination aims to emphasize inconsistencies, challenge credibility, or raise doubts about the testimony. However, questions must relate to testimony already given.

The Defense’s Case

Once the prosecution rests their case, the defense can present evidence and witnesses supporting innocence, alibis, or raising doubts about the prosecution’s version of events. As with the prosecution’s witnesses, cross-examination follows.

Rebuttal and Closing Arguments

After both sides present their cases, each gets to offer final arguments. The prosecution can first offer a rebuttal of the defense’s case. Then both sides make closing arguments summarizing the key evidence and themes.

Jury Deliberations and Verdict

Following closing arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the relevant laws and charges they must consider to reach a verdict. The jury then deliberates privately until they reach a unanimous decision. If they cannot agree, a hung jury results in mistrial. An acquittal or conviction follows a unanimous verdict.

Sentencing: Punishing Criminal Behavior

If convicted, the defendant moves to the sentencing phase where the court imposes punishment for the crime. Sentencing usually takes place several weeks after a conviction or guilty plea.

Pre-sentence Investigation

After conviction but before sentencing, probation officers conduct a pre-sentence investigation. This involves examining the defendant’s criminal history, employment records, mental health, and other background information relevant to sentencing. A report summarizes their findings.

Sentencing Hearing

At the sentencing hearing, the judge considers the pre-sentence report, evidence from both sides regarding appropriate punishment, as well as any victim impact statements. The court then imposes a sentence following the sentencing guidelines.

Sentencing Guidelines

Federal and state sentencing guidelines specify punishment ranges for different offenses based on the crime committed and the defendant’s criminal history. Judges have discretion to depart from the guidelines but must explain their reasoning.

Types of Penalties

Possible penalties that convicted defendants face include:

– Jail or prison time
– Fines
– Probation
– Restitution to victims
– Forfeiture of assets or property
– Capital punishment in murder cases

Appealing a Conviction or Sentence

Defendants who believe their conviction or sentence is unlawful can file an appeal to a higher court. Appeals raise issues like insufficient evidence, procedural errors, improper jury instructions, or excessive penalties. Appeals rarely lead to an overturned verdict but can reduce sentences.


Criminal procedure provisions aim to protect individuals’ rights and liberties while allowing the justice system to prosecute crimes. Understanding each phase from investigation through sentencing provides critical insight into the safeguards and processes in place for determining guilt, securing justice for victims, and applying appropriate punishment to those convicted of crimes. Proper procedures help ensure fairness for both defendants and the state.

Parul is an experienced blogger, author and lawyer who also works as an SEO content writer, copywriter and social media enthusiast. She creates compelling legal content that engages readers and improves website visibility. Linkedin


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