News Flash

MCAO Latest News

Posted on: August 3, 2020

How a Criminal Case Moves Through the Justice System

Lady Justice

The criminal justice system relies on an extensive process centered around rules, decision making, and facts. Throughout each step of this process, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, any decision that deprives a person of privacy, property, and liberty must be supported with facts. As a result, the more significant the decision to limit a person’s rights, the more facts that need to be presented to justify such a decision. Within each step of the process, these facts and the probable cause for a crime, are reviewed extensively to ensure justice.

The process begins when a crime is committed, observed, and reported. After law enforcement responds, a criminal investigation follows and, if possible, an arrest. Along with the arrest, law enforcement submits a written statement explaining the probable cause that links that specific person to a particular crime.

It’s required by law that within 24 hours of an arrest, the suspect is seen before a judge in Initial Appearance court. At this time, the judge will review the probable cause statement, inform the suspect of the alleged offense, and determine whether they can be released and under what conditions. A suspect will remain detained if they present a danger to the community or are at risk of not showing up to trial.

Concurrently, once law enforcement completes the investigation, they submit all information pertaining to the case and their recommended charges to our office. Every year, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office reviews, on average, over 50,000 felony submittals and prosecutes over 30,000 cases. Depending on the location and type of crime committed, the submittal may go to one of our eight geographically designated bureaus or one of our eleven specialized crime bureaus.

MCAO prosecutors then decide which charges to file, if any, and make their own decisions as to the appropriate charges for that particular crime. At least one charge must be filed to the Maricopa County Superior Court by the County Attorney’s Office within 48 hours of submittal for the suspect to remain in custody or for release conditions to continue. In crimes of grave stature, a Grand Jury may be called up to help decide on charges.

As the case moves forward, the suspect becomes a defendant, and the pretrial process, including sharing discovery and conducting witness interviews, begins. During the trial, defense attorneys, judges, and prosecutors all play a part in how a case will be solved. Prosecutors alone don’t decide a defendant’s fate. A judge or jury ultimately makes this decision once each side has presented their case.

While this occurs with some criminal cases, the majority of cases are resolved before making it to the courtroom. In a plea agreement, the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. A judge must also find that the agreement is in the interest of justice.

All in all, each step of the criminal justice process helps maintain the balance between holding those who commit crimes accountable and preventing those who are innocent of losing their liberty. To learn more about the role the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office plays in the criminal justice system visit,

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