Imagine you’ve just been accused of committing a crime. The police have thrown you in handcuffs and just put you in the back of their vehicle. You’re probably wondering what happens next? If you’ve never been in trouble with the law before, or your information about court proceedings and criminal defense lawyers comes from watching celebrity tabloids, you’re probably even more confused.

In the United States, there is a process that every accused person must go through before they can be found guilty or innocent of a crime. This process is known as the criminal justice system, and it has several steps for a fair trial to occur.

1. Investigation

During the first step in the criminal justice process, the police will conduct a thorough investigation. The purpose of the investigation is to gather evidence that will either support or refute the accusation. Evidence can be collected in several ways, but the most common is through eyewitness testimony, physical evidence, and recordings.


Eyewitness testimony is when someone sees what happened and can tell the police what they saw. An ideal witness is someone who can provide a clear and concise account of the events that took place.


Physical evidence is when the police find something at the crime scene that links the accused to the crime. Weapons, clothing, blood, and fingerprints are all examples of physical evidence. According to the FBI, fingerprints are the most common type of physical evidence.


A recording is when the police collect audio or video footage of the crime being committed. This could be from a security camera, a cell phone, or a dashcam. Recordings are often used as evidence in court because they provide an unbiased account of what happened.

2. Arrest

After the police have investigated the crime and gathered enough evidence, they will ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant. An arrest warrant is a document that gives the police permission to arrest the accused. Once the accused has been arrested, they will be taken to the police station and booked. During an arrest, an accused person has certain rights that must be respected. Some of those rights include the right to remain silent and the right to have criminal defense lawyers present.


Booking is when the police collect the accused’s personal information, take their mugshot, and fingerprint them. The booking process provides the police with a way to identify the accused and track their criminal history.


After the accused has been booked, they will have a bail hearing. During this hearing, a judge will decide if the accused should be released from jail while they await their trial. The judge will consider several factors, including the crime’s severity and the accused’s criminal history. If the judge decides to set bail, the accused will have to pay a certain amount of money to the court to be released.

3. Arraignment

After the investigation is complete, the accused will appear before a judge for an arraignment. During the arraignment, the charges against the accused will be read aloud, and the accused will be asked to enter a guilty or not guilty plea. If the accused pleads guilty, they will be sentenced immediately. If the accused pleads not guilty, their case will proceed to trial.

4. Pretrial Conferences

If the accused pleads not guilty, the next step is for the attorneys to meet with the judge to discuss the case. These conferences are typically held in private and allow the attorneys to work out any issues they may have with the evidence or witnesses.

5. Trial

If the attorneys cannot reach a resolution during the pretrial conferences, the next step is for the case to go to trial. A trial typically includes opening statements, witness testimony, closing arguments, and jury deliberation.

Opening statements

The opening statements are when the attorneys give the jury an overview of their perspective case. Each attorney’s goal is to persuade the jury to see their side of the story. They’ll do so by highlighting the evidence that supports their argument and discrediting the evidence that doesn’t.

Witness testimony

After the opening statements, the witnesses for each side will take the stand and testify. The attorneys will then have an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses. Cross-examination is when the attorney questions the witness in an attempt to get them to change their story or to reveal information that is favorable to their side of the case.

Closing arguments

After all witnesses have testified, the attorneys will give their final arguments. This is their last chance to persuade the jury to see their side of the story.

Jury deliberation

After the attorneys have given their closing arguments, the jury will retire to deliberate. During deliberations, the jury will discuss the evidence and decide whether or not the accused is guilty. The jury must unanimously agree that there is enough evidence for a guilty verdict.

6. Sentencing

If the jury finds the accused person guilty, the next step is for the judge to sentence the person. The sentence will depend on the severity of the crime and any previous criminal history the accused may have.


After the accused has been sentenced, they may be placed on probation. Probation is when the accused is released from jail but must meet certain conditions set by the court. These conditions may include meeting with a probation officer, attending counseling, and obeying a curfew.

House arrest

Another form of probation is house arrest. With house arrest, the accused is confined to their home and may only leave for specific reasons, such as work or school.


The most severe form of punishment is prison. If the accused is sentenced to jail, they will be required to serve their sentence in a state or federal prison.

7. Appeals

If the accused is not satisfied with their sentence, they may file an appeal. An appeal is when the case is sent to a higher court for review. The higher court will then decide whether or not to uphold the original sentence.

8. Post-Trial Proceedings

Once the accused has been sentenced, and the appeals process has been completed, the case is considered closed. The accused will then be required to comply with their sentence, which may include probation, house arrest, or prison. If they fail to do so, they may be subject to additional penalties, such as being sent back to prison.

Final Thoughts

The criminal justice system is a complex process that can be difficult to understand. However, it is important to remember that everyone accused of a crime has the right to a fair trial. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, it is crucial to seek legal assistance as soon as possible to ensure that your rights are protected.