Criminal Cases

Criminal Cases in the United States

Criminal cases can be divided into at least three categories. The most serious criminal cases are felonies. Most states and the federal government define felonies as crimes for which a prison sentence of at least one year could result. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are less serious but far more numerous. Sanctions for misdemeanors typically cannot exceed a year’s detention in local facilities. If traffic offenses are defined as criminal, they are included in the jurisdiction of misdemeanor courts. Some states subdivide misdemeanors into more and less serious classes. Another category of criminal behavior is crime by juveniles. Each state has its own structure for dealing with such cases in a manner distinct from the handling of adult offenders.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Criminal Cases from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Criminal Cases and the Federal Courts

In the words of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts: The judicial process in a criminal case differs from a civil case in several important ways. At the beginning of a federal criminal case, the principal actors are the U.S. attorney (the prosecutor) and the grand jury. The U.S. attorney represents the United States in most court proceedings, including all criminal prosecutions. The grand jury reviews evidence presented by the U.S. attorney and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to require a defendant to stand trial. After a person is arrested, a pretrial services or probation officer of the court immediately interviews the defendant and conducts an investigation of the defendant’s background. The information obtained by the pretrial services or probation office will be used to help a judge decide whether to release the defendant into the community before trial, and whether to impose conditions of release. A person accused of a crime is entitled to release before trial, unless the judge determines that the person is likely to be a danger to some other person or the community, is likely to engage in further criminal activity if released, or is not likely to appear for trial. At an initial appearance, a judge advises the defendant of the charges filed, considers whether the defendant should be held in jail until trial, and determines whether there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed and that the defendant has committed it. Defendants who are unable to afford counsel are advised of their right to a court-appointed attorney. The court may appoint either a federal defender or a private attorney who has agreed to accept such appointments from the court. In either type of appointment, the attorney will be paid by the court from funds appropriated by Congress.

More about Criminal Cases

Defendants released into the community before trial may be subject to certain restrictions, such as electronic monitoring or drug testing, and required to make periodic reports to a pretrial services officer to ensure appearance at trial. The defendant enters a plea to the charges brought by the U.S. attorney at a court hearing known as an arraignment. Most defendants—more than 90%—plead guilty rather than go to trial. If a defendant pleads guilty in return for the government agreeing to drop certain charges or to recommend a lenient sentence, the agreement often is called a “plea bargain.” If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge may impose a sentence at that time, but more commonly will schedule a hearing to determine the sentence at a later date. In most felony cases the judge waits for the results of a presentence report, prepared by the court’s probation office, before imposing a sentence. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge will proceed to schedule a trial. Criminal cases include limited pretrial discovery proceedings, similar to those in civil cases, but with restrictions to protect the identity of government informants and to prevent intimidation of witnesses. The attorneys also may file motions, which are requests for rulings by the court before the trial. For example, defense attorneys often file a motion to suppress evidence, which asks the court to exclude from the trial evidence that the defendant believes was obtained by the government in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.


In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is on the government. Defendants do not have to prove their innocence. Instead, the government must provide evidence to convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt. The standard of proof in a criminal trial gives the prosecutor a much greater burden than the plaintiff in a civil trial. The defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which means the evidence must be so strong that there is no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. If a defendant is found not guilty, the defendant is released and the government may not appeal. The person may not be charged again for the same offense in a federal court. The Constitution prohibits “double jeopardy,” or being tried twice for the same offense. If the verdict is guilty, the judge determines the defendant’s sentence. The United States Sentencing Commission issues federal sentencing guidelines which are advisory, but judges must still consider them when determining a defendant’s sentence. The court’s probation office prepares a report for the court that considers the individual defendant and the crimes for which he or she has been found guilty. During sentencing, the court may consider not only the recommendation in the sentencing guidelines and the evidence produced at trial, but also relevant information that may be provided by the pretrial services officer, the U.S. attorney, and the defense attorney. A sentence may include time in prison, a fine to be paid to the government, and restitution to be paid to crime victims. The court’s probation officers assist the court in enforcing any conditions that are imposed as part of a criminal sentence. The supervision of offenders also may involve services such as substance abuse testing and treatment programs, job counseling, and alternative detention options, such as home confinement or electronic monitoring.

Coram Nobis Practice in Criminal Cases

This section examines the Coram Nobis Practice in Criminal Cases subject in its related phase of trial. In some cases, other key elements related to trials, such as personal injury, business, and criminal litigation, are also addressed.

Jury Selection and Voir Dire in Criminal Cases

This section examines the Jury Selection and Voir Dire in Criminal Cases subject in its related phase of trial. In some cases, other key elements related to trials, such as personal injury, business, and criminal litigation, are also addressed.

Locating and Preserving Evidence in Criminal Cases

This section examines the Locating and Preserving Evidence in Criminal Cases subject in its related phase of trial. In some cases, other key elements related to trials, such as personal injury, business, and criminal litigation, are also addressed.

Criminal Cases Explained


See Also

  • Jury System
  • Right to Trial
  • Trial Jury

Criminal Cases: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Criminal Cases. This part provides references, in relation to Criminal Cases, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Criminal Cases by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Criminal Cases and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Criminal Cases or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Criminal Cases and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Criminal Cases. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Criminal Cases should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Criminal Cases when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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