In the immediate aftermath of an arrest, many people have more questions than answers as they are shuffled through the first stages of interaction with the criminal justice system. After all, most people are never exposed to this side of the court system. So, from an arrest to the end of the case, how do criminal cases usually proceed?
Criminal case basics
The arrest is obviously the first step for a defendant in a criminal case, but there will typically be many more steps to come before a final decision in the case is reached. It used to be that, in New York and New Jersey, the next step after an arrest was a determination of the amount of “bail”—funds deposited with the court to secure the arrestee’s release as the criminal case is pending. However, our readers probably know that the bail system has been significantly reformed in both states, so a bail determination is very different from what it used to be—but it can still be a part of the next step in the case.
Early in the case, the defendant will be brought before a judge and informed of the pending charges that will be pursued in the case. At this time, a judge will also typically determine whether or not a defendant needs a court-appointed defense attorney. There may be another court date as well, at which point a judge will need to decide if the prosecution has convincing evidence that might lead to a conviction in the case.
From there, preparations for a trial begin. “Discovery” is when both sides exchange information that might be used at trial, and “pre-trial motions” are also common, on a range of topics; even motions to dismiss the case entirely. Ultimately, the trial might be a “bench” trial—where the judge alone is the fact-finder—or a jury trial. Trials, of course, usually end with a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict. If the verdict is “guilty,” the next step is sentencing.