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How Do Criminal Cases Start?

Criminal cases usually start with an arrest report, which is given to a police officer or prosecutor who will initiate the case. If there are any criminal charges needed to be filed, the prosecutor will be the one to decide on it. Some of these cases will continue to a preliminary hearing, and then a judge will decide if the evidence is enough to proceed with the case. Other cases are also initiated when a grand jury gives out a criminal indictment.

What is an Arrest Report and a Criminal Charge?

Arrest reports provide a timeline of what happened leading to the arrest, such as times, dates, witness names, and locations. The prosecutor will decide if the case will get charged and filed as a “complaint,” brought to the grand jury who will decide on the charges, or drop it.

As mentioned above, prosecutors will be the ones to decide on the charges, but police officers may recommend filing additional charges. The officers also provide more information about the crime or crimes committed and the basis for the arrest.

A defendant may learn the formal charges during the first court appearance, but it depends on the prosecutor handling the case. Some prosecutors make a final decision after the preliminary hearing, which may take a month or more after the arrest.


What is a Preliminary Hearing?

When a prosecutor files a felony complaint instead of presenting the case to a grand jury, the defendant will still get a preliminary hearing. During this hearing, the prosecutor must provide evidence to prove that the defendant is guilty of starting a trial. If the prosecutor decides to bring the case to the grand jury, then there is no need for a preliminary hearing.

What is a Grand Jury?

If the crime is classified as a felony, prosecutors will bring the case to the grand jury to decide on the charges. Compared to regular trial juries or petit juries, a grand jury is composed of randomly selected people. These individuals will determine whether to indict the defendant based on the evidence presented.

Grand Jury vs. Petit Jury: More Comparisons
● A petit jury only has to sit on one case while a grand jury may serve for six months or longer.
● A petit jury decides if a defendant is guilty while a grand jury will agree to warrant a trial based on the evidence.
● Petit jurors serve in public trials while grand juries meet privately for proceedings.
● Petit juries comprise of 6 to 12 people while grand juries comprise of 16 to 23 people in federal court.
● Petit jurors usually have to make a unanimous decision to convict while grand juries don’t have to be unanimous. They can indict a defendant if at least 12 people agree.

Limited Proceedings

Prosecutors present a “bill” or charges to the grand jury and present minimum evidence to warrant an indictment. This is done privately as witnesses will be asked to testify against the defendant. Some states will allow defendants to see recordings or transcripts of this process, which is why prosecutors only share a few details about their evidence.

The result?

If the grand jury indicts, this will be the “true bill,” and if not, then “no bill.” Even if it is a no bill, it doesn’t mean the case is closed. A prosecutor may continue presenting more evidence, find a different grand jury, or file a criminal complaint.

Needing a Lawyer

The process differs in the federal and state court, per state, and locales in the same state. Always consult a criminal defense attorney when arrested.

Based on Materials from Nolo.Com
Photo Sources: Riverfront Stages, California Criminal Defense Lawyers, ABC News, Hittconrtacting

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