Dealing with the criminal justice system can be a frightening and overwhelming experience, even when an individual isn't facing the threat of an arrest. Being investigated can be even more stressful because police aren't obligated to explain themselves until their investigation is completed and an arrest is made. Understanding the legal rights of the accused can be critical in these situations, combined with competent legal help.
Investigations Begin with a Verbal or Written Complaint
Investigations typically begin with the filing of a verbal or written complaint when police aren't called to the scene of an active crime, in which case an arrest might be made immediately and a complaint and investigation would follow. Cases that begin with a complaint are usually followed by sending officers to the crime scene, or to interview and take custody of the individual who's being charged.
Officers interview witnesses and gather physical evidence, if any, and summarize their efforts in their field notes. The accused should receive a copy of this report and has a right to ask for one if it's not offered voluntarily.
Review of the Report by the Prosecutor
The written report is sent to the prosecutor, who must then decide if more investigation is necessary or if enough evidence exists to authorize prosecution based on probable cause that a crime has occurred. The evidence must also support that the person cited in the report committed the crime.
The American Bar Association notes that this should not be confused with proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a heavier burden to meet and is required for conviction at trial.
Arrests and Hearings
If an arrest warrant is issued, the police will detain the suspect until he or she posts bond. A court can order the suspect held without bail in serious cases. The suspect is brought in for a hearing often referred to as an arraignment, at which time the charges against him are read.
If the suspect is arrested then released without charges being filed, this doesn't necessarily mean that they're home free. Police can continue to investigate and might arrest the individual again if they believe they have stronger evidence at a later point in time. An individual can't be tried in court for the same crime twice – a process referred to as double jeopardy – but can be accused more than once if the charges are originally dropped.
A suspect need not admit police into her home, nor accompany police anywhere if there's no likelihood of an arrest, but a suspect must speak with police if approached at work or in some other public place.
A Suspect's Rights
The period between the arrest and filing of formal charges represents the greatest danger period because many people have a hazy concept of their legal rights during this time. A person under arrest must confirm their identity, but they don't have to answer questions nor allow searches of their property unless police have a search warrant.
Suspects shouldn't voluntarily sign any statements beyond writing, "I want my lawyer" to avoid being tricked into weakening their defense.
Get an Attorney
Generations of TV cop show dramas have made viewers familiar with the Miranda rights warnings, which advise suspects of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning. This warning won't be given until after an arrest, however, and before police or investigators begin questioning.
Anyone who's been accused should hire an attorney or seek a public defender's help to navigate the legal maze. Failure to do so can seriously damage a person's legal interests.