The stages of a criminal case as it proceeds through the legal system can be confusing for individuals who find themselves on the wrong end of legal charges for the first time. Though popular media has no shortage of stories set within the criminal justice system, these fictional depictions often leave out important details. When a substantial portion of your personal and professional future hangs in the balance, it’s critical to have a complete and accurate understanding of the steps through which your criminal case will proceed.

Criminal Arrest

A criminal case begins with an investigation into alleged criminal conduct. The formal process begins when an individual accused of a crime is taken into custody by law enforcement. To make an arrest, the law enforcement officer must either be present at the time the crime is committed and see it happen, or have an arrest warrant for the suspect in question. Arrest warrants may be obtained by law enforcement when they can present probable cause that a given individual committed the crime. There are certain procedures, determined by the jurisdiction, that an arresting officer must follow for a legitimate arrest.

Criminal Charges

The accused has the right to be informed of the crime(s) for which they are being charged, either at the time of the arrest or as promptly thereafter as is practical.

Initial Appearance

This is usually the first occasion on which a given criminal case comes before a judge. Generally the initial appearance must occur within 24 hours of the arrest. During this appearance, the identity of the accused is confirmed, the criminal charges against them are explained, and the accused is informed of their rights (to remain silent, and to be represented by an attorney). Public defenders are assigned to defendants who cannot afford a lawyer.

Preliminary Hearing

An accused defendant has the right to be present and represented by an attorney at this hearing, the purpose of which is to present and challenge evidence that shows probable cause to believe that a criminal act was indeed committed, and that the defendant was the perpetrator. Evidence may be presented at this stage to support or dispute these claims. If the Judge determines that the State failed to demonstrate that there was probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a crime, the charges are dismissed and the defendant released. The State can avoid a probable cause hearing by presenting the case to the grand jury and obtaining an indictment. The indictment is proof that the grand jury found sufficient probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime(s)charged.

Bail or Detention Hearing

If not already determined at the defendant’s initial appearance before the court, a separate hearing is convened to establish whether bail is appropriate, and if so, in what amount.

Grand Jury

Felony cases in some jurisdictions involve a grand jury indictment rather than a preliminary hearing. In these cases, a grand jury consisting of private citizens sworn to secrecy hears evidence only from the prosecutor, the defense is not permitted to participate. The grand jury in a criminal case has the power to compel testimony from concerned parties, including the victim. After investigating, the grand jury votes on whether to indict or dismiss.


At this stage of a criminal case, the defendant is formally presented with the charges against them contained in the indictment and enters a plea.

Pre-Trial Hearings

Before the trial begins, both the prosecution and the defense may introduce motions to address outstanding issues pertaining to the case, which are ruled upon by the judge.

Plea Negotiations

Instead of proceeding to trial, the defendant may choose plead guilty to the original charge or a lesser charge, in exchange for some form of consideration from the prosecution – often involving either dropping other charges or recommending a specific sentence. The court has the option to accept or reject the plea agreement; if it is rejected, the defendant may withdraw their plea.

Criminal Trial

If the case is not dismissed or resolved with a plea agreement, it goes to trial before a jury. This is perhaps the most well-recognized portion of a criminal case. Jurors are selected, evidence is presented, witnesses are questioned and cross-examined. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If they cannot, the defense attorney may ask for a judgment of acquittal.


If the trial is completed without a judgment of acquittal, dismissal, or plea agreement, the jury withdraws to consider the facts and reach a verdict, which is then presented to the court. If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the defendant is released. Otherwise, the case proceeds to sentencing.


The sentence received by the defendant is often determined at a separate hearing. Both the prosecution and the defense present evidence regarding the appropriate punishment, and the judge makes the final determination.


You may appeal the ruling in your criminal case to a higher court if you believe an error or inappropriate action resulted in an unfair decision. Appeals are difficult to win, and your attorney can help you determine whether you have grounds for an appeal.

The experienced attorneys at Robert G. Stahl Criminal Defense Lawyers aggressively defend individuals charged with complex federal and state crimes. Founder Robert G. Stahl is recognized as one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the NY/NJ area for his skills, knowledge and success. To contact us to discuss your case, call 908-301-9001 for our Westfield, New Jersey office and 212-755-3300 for our New York City office, or email us at