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We very often hear the terms “criminal justice” and the “criminal justice process” but must of us do not understand what these terms mean. The terms refer to the steps by which a criminal complaint is investigated and a criminal case in court is filed. It also includes the process by which a person who is accused of a crime is indicted, arrested, arraigned, tried, sentenced and punished. Thus, the criminal justice process is the step-by-step procedure one can expect when the state processes criminal cases.

When we say criminal cases, this term includes misdemeanors such as traffic offenses and felonies. Generally, a person cannot be charged with having committed a crime unless there is a law defining that certain acts are punishable.

How does the criminal justice process begin?


Each criminal prosecution begins with a complaint. The complaint may be filed by a complainant (a person who was a victim of a criminal act) or by the police officer to whom the victim of a criminal act made a complaint. The police gather information to determine the identity of the suspected criminal and information regarding his or her actions. The investigation may include a search of houses or cars where evidence of criminal acts may be found.

Warrant of Arrest or Search Warrant

The police may find that there is sufficient probable cause. That is, there is probable cause when there is sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed and that the suspect was the person who probably committed the crime. When this happens, the police will apply for a warrant of arrest and proceed to arrest the suspect.

What is probable cause?

Probable cause is a determination by a police officer, a prosecutor, or a judge that evidence of a commission of a crime exists and the evidence of a crime points to a suspect as the person who committed the crime. The evidence may not be sufficient to convict the suspect of a criminal offense, but, at its face value, the evidence is sufficient to hold the suspect for custodial investigation or to arrest the suspect, or for the suspect to be charged with a crime in court.

Inquest or Custodial Investigation

The police will also have to convince the district attorney that the person they are accusing committed the criminal acts complained of. The district attorney will decide what criminal charges to bring. The district attorney may then file an information. An information is a document that lists down the acts for which a person is being accused. Sometimes, a district attorney’s office is required to present the evidence they have to a grand jury. A grand jury is a group of citizens whose names were taken from the electoral role. They will decide if there is enough evidence to bring a criminal information against the person accused.

When the district attorney files the criminal information in court, the judge may call a preliminary hearing, called a probable cause hearing. At this hearing, the judge will determine if there is sufficient evidence to bring the case to trial. The judge will look at the evidence to see if it will not be a waste of the court’s time to hear the matter because there is sufficient evidence on which a judgment can be made. If the accused is already in custody, the accused or his lawyer may attend the probable cause hearing and present evidence that shows that the evidence of the district attorney is not sufficient to bring the case to trial.


If the judge determines that there is sufficient probable cause, the judge will call the accused to an arraignment. At the arraignment, the charges will be read to the accused. The accused will be asked if he understands the charges. If the accused has no lawyer, a lawyer will be assigned or appointed to him by the court. The court will then ask for the plea of the accused. The accused can say if he will plead guilty (this means that he admits having done the acts charged against him) or if he is not guilty (he denies that he did the acts or even if he did, he has a good defense), or, if he will not contest the charges (this means that while the accused does not admit wrong doing, he will not contest the charges).

If the accused pleads guilty, the court may ask the district attorney to present evidence of guilt so that the judge can be satisfied that the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction before sentencing. The judge will then ascertain if the accused understands the effects of pleading guilty: that the accused will have a criminal record, that the accused may go to jail, pay a fine, or both, or do community service. The judge will also explain that the accused, if he pleads guilty, may have other civil penalties like being registered as a sex offender, not being able to vote in the future, and, if the accused is an immigrant or a lawful permanent resident, the immigration benefits or status he or she enjoys may be revoked. When the judge is satisfied that the accused understands what his plea of guilt will mean to his life and to his immigration and work prospects in the future, the judge will pass sentence.


If the accused pleads non contendere (no contest), the court may immediately pass sentence or, the judge may ask the district attorney to present its evidence. The accused will not be allowed to present contrary evidence. If the accused pleads not guilty, trial will begin.

There can be months between an arraignment and the beginning of trial. During that time, an accused can put up bail so that he or she can be free and stay with his family or else continue with his business or employment. The question of whether the accused can be allowed to post bail and how much bail the accused should pay will be heard at a bail hearing. At the bail hearing, the district attorney or the public prosecutor will present evidence that the accused should not be allowed to post bail because he or she is a flight risk.

Plea Bargaining

There can also be a plea bargaining. The accused informs the public prosecutor of his or her willingness to plead guilty to a lower offense or plead guilty to a reduced sentence. If the public prosecutor and the accused can agree, then the accused will change his or her plea and the prosecutor may withdraw the original information in exchange for an information that charges a lower offense. In this case, the accused will proceed to sentencing without there being any trial.

If the prosecutor and the accused fail to come to an agreement, the case will go to trial. The parties will choose the persons who will make up the jury. Both sides will present their opening arguments. Normally, the prosecutor presents its case first because the prosecutor usually has the burden of proving that a crime has been committed and the accused was guilty of committing the crime.

When the prosecutor presents its evidence, the prosecutor presents documents, objects or testimony into evidence. Usually, witnesses are called to court by a subpoena and they are required to appear and give a testimony. A witness can be called to identify objects (a knife, a gun, etc.) or documents (a contract, a letter, an email). The prosecutor will ask the witness questions about what he or she knows from personal knowledge. This is called the direct examination.

After the prosecutor has finished asking questions of the witness, the accused may ask questions of the witness. This is called the cross-examination. During cross-examination, the accused can test the credibility, recollection, truthfulness, accuracy and bias of the witness.

If during the cross-examination matters have been brought up which the prosecutor wants to address, the prosecutor can call the witness back to the stand and ask questions on re-direct examination. And if matters were brought up on re-direct that the accused wishes to ask questions about, the accused may ask question on re-cross-examination. After all this, the witness may be excused.

After presenting all its evidence, the prosecutor will rest its cases. Resting a case means they will close the presentation of evidence because there is no more evidence left to present and the prosecutor feels that all relevant evidence has already been presented to the court.

After the prosecution rests, the accused will present his or her evidence in the same manner through direct examination of witnesses after which, the prosecutor will be give the opportunity to ask questions on cross-examination. After the accused has rested its case, the matter will be decided by the judge or by the jury. The judge or the jury will deliberate (look at all the evidence) and see if the evidence presented proves beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime.

Verdict and Sentencing

If the judge or the jury find that there is reasonable doubt, then they will return a verdict of not guilty. But if they find that there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime, they will return a verdict of guilty. The matter will then proceed to sentencing.

During the sentencing, the judge has discretion to determine the sentence that should be passed. Both sides will present evidence to show whether there are circumstances that merit a lower or higher sentence. There may be circumstances proved such as the accused’s minority or advanced age, the accused’s disability or illness. The remorse of the accused and the forgiveness of the complainant are also taken into consideration. If the accused did not post bail, the amount of time that he or she had been detained will be considered in determining how long the penalty of imprisonment should be.


If the accused feels that errors had been committed by the judge in appreciating the evidence or in admitting pieces of evidence, the accused may appeal. While on appeal, the accused may also post bail so that he or she can enjoy temporary liberty while the case is heard on appeal. If the accused does not appeal, or if he or she appeals but cannot post bail, the accused will be imprisoned as a convicted felon. The accused may also be admitted into probation. This means that the accused will not serve his sentence in prison, but the accused will report to a probation officer for the entire period that he or she should be serving the jail term. While serving the sentence, the accused may be released early on parole or, the accused may be pardoned.

This, in a nutshell, is the criminal justice process. While it is allowed for an accused to defend himself in court, most people hire a lawyer who can defend them. A lawyer who is equipped to represent an accused person in court is called a criminal defense attorney. A good criminal defense attorney is certified and licensed to practice law in the state where the case will be tried and has sufficient relevant experience in the field of criminal defense.

Are you facing a criminal complaint or information? Are you involved as an accused person in any of the stages of the criminal justice process described above? Do you wish to speak with a criminal defense attorney? Call the criminal defense lawyers at Lluis Law – we have a 20-year track record of excellent legal service in the field of criminal defense in the state of California. Call us today.