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Stages of a Criminal Prosecution



The first, and most important stage of a criminal prosecution is the preliminary hearing. This initial hearing, which takes place before a local district justice, is your opportunity to confront the evidence that police officer is able to present in order to prove that you have committed the criminal offense you have been charged with. The burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is low. The prosecution must merely present enough evidence to show that there is probable cause to believe that you have committed the offense. However, they must show their hand – often the evidence they have is enough to carry a preliminary hearing but not to prevail at a trial on the merits of the charges. For instance, you may learn that the seizure of contraband by the arresting police officers violated your constitutional rights. The district justice cannot address this issue. He or she merely determines if it is possible that you committed the offense as charged. However, the issue can later be addressed in a motion to suppress evidence.

It is important to have an experience litigator by your side from the beginning of the legal process in order to protect your rights. Your constitutional rights may have been violated at the time of your stop and arrest without your even knowing it. Establishing this violation early in the proceedings makes it more likely that law enforcement officials, whether the police officers involved in your arrest themselves or the prosecutors who present your case to the court, will be willing to resolve your case in a way most favorable to you.


Depending on the jurisdiction, one to two months later your case will be scheduled for arraignment. This means that you are being formally charged with a criminal offense. If the Law Offices of Alfred J. Merlie represent you, the hearing can be handled in a manner that you will not have to appear in court.


Many counties now schedule each criminal case for a pretrial conference. The purpose of he conference is to give the accused an opportunity to discuss the case with a district attorney and, if necessary, the judge in order to resolve the case without the necessity of a trial. If the parties are able to agree to an appropriate resolution of the case, it can be presented to the judge for his approval.


If the parties are unable to resolve the dispute at a pretrial conference, the case is scheduled for trial. A trial is exactly what you would think. The prosecution presents its evidence to a judge or jury in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual charged with a crime in fact committed it. The individual charged is able, if he or she chooses, to present evidence on their own behalf to establish their innocence. This can be done by testifying on their own behalf or calling witnesses, including character witnesses, to testify for them. Of course, every criminal defendant has the right not to present a defense and argue that the prosecutor has not proven his or her case. Should he or she choose to do so, the judge will instruct the jury that they cannot hold that against the person accused of the crime and must only consider the evidence presented to them in court in determining innocence or guilt.