HOW THE CRIMINAL PROCESS WORKS
OUTLINE OF A CRIMINAL CASE
1.Indictment, Complaint, Information
The first step in the criminal process is the issuance of a charging document. There are three types of charging documents: an Indictment, a Complaint, and an Information. Prior to the filing of a charging document in your case, the prosecutor followed one of the procedures discussed below:
The prosecutor may have presented evidence to a grand jury, a group of twenty-three citizens, who heard the evidence, determined there was probable cause to charge you with a crime, and returned an Indictment. The Indictment is the most common type of charging document in the federal system. It specifies the exact charges against you. The government should provide you with a copy of the indictment prior to, or at the time of, your initial appearance.
Alternatively, the prosecutor may have prepared a Criminal Complaint accompanied by an Affidavit or a Criminal Information. These two types of charging documents are used less often. In the event that you are charged by Criminal Complaint or Information, you should consult with your attorney about the additional procedural steps for these proceedings.
The second step in the criminal process is the initial appearance. This is a court hearing where you are arraigned and your defense attorney is identified or appointed.
After your arrest, the government must bring you before a magistrate judge without “unnecessary delay.” The magistrate judge will ask you if you have seen and read the charging document, inform you of the charges against you, and enter a plea of “not guilty” on your behalf. However, if you were charged by a Complaint, the magistrate judge will set the case for preliminary hearing pending the issuance of an Indictment. Magistrate judges will not normally accept guilty pleas at the initial appearance.
In addition, the magistrate judge will inform you of your right to an attorney at all stages of the criminal proceedings. You have the right to hire your own attorney. However, if you are financially unable to hire an attorney, you may ask the judge to appoint an attorney to represent you. In such event, you will need to fill out a financial affidavit and honestly report your financial circumstances. It may constitute an additional crime if you falsify financial information on the affidavit.