The officer tells the prosecutor about the investigation, which is called “presenting the case.” The prosecutor decides if there is enough evidence to file criminal charges against a person, this is also called pressing charges. Before filing charges, the prosecutor must believe they have enough information to prove to a jury at trial that the incident happened. The person charged with a crime is the defendant. The prosecutor files charges for the government. The victim never files charges.
Sometimes, a law enforcement officer has enough evidence to make an arrest immediately. If the officer makes an arrest, the person arrested is called the defendant. The defendant goes to jail. The defendant can leave jail if they post bond (also called bail); if not, they stay in jail. A mandatory protection order (MPO) will go into place to protect the victim once the defendant appears before the judge.
Note: The victim can apply for a civil protection order at any point and doesn’t have to wait until the criminal case is over. However, there might be reasons to wait until after the criminal trial. Victims may want to talk to an attorney about what makes the most sense for their case. To read more about civil protection orders, click here.
The defendant appears in court and may have several court dates or hearings as the case moves forward. The first time a defendant goes to court, they are told the charges against them and advised of their rights. Bail may also be addressed. This is called the initial appearance or advisement.
If the defendant is charged with a felony, there may then be a preliminary hearing. At this hearing, the prosecutor has to show the court that they have enough evidence to prove that a crime was committed and that the defendant did it. If the prosecutor is successful, the case is set for arraignment.
At the arraignment (or at the initial appearance/advisement for misdemeanor charges) the defendant will have the opportunity to tell the court how they plead, either guilty or not guilty. If they plead guilty, a hearing will be set for sentencing. If they plead not guilty, the case may be set for trial. There may be several additional court dates as the case moves forward.
A victim has the right to attend these hearings; however, they might not be required to attend. During this time, the prosecutor may come up with a plea bargain. A plea bargain is a way to resolve the case without having to go to trial. Often, the defendant pleads guilty to get something in return. For example, the defendant might plead guilty to the charge to get a particular sentence or to have another charge dismissed.
If the prosecutor and defendant can’t come to an agreement on how to resolve the case, it will move on to trial and the victim may be ordered to testify (also called a subpoena).
During the process outlined above, a victim has several rights. To read more about victims’ rights, click here.
A trial could be to either a judge (court trial) or a jury (jury trial). At trial, witnesses will be called to testify and evidence will be presented. At the end of the trial, the judge or jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. That decision is called the verdict.