When a law enforcement agent learns of a criminal offense, an official investigation begins. Witnesses are interviewed, crime scene forensic work is undertaken and the investigating officer starts to prepare a case file. When the officer has a reasonable basis to believe that an offense occurred and a particular person committed it, the officer has "probable cause" to sign a complaint formally accusing the suspect.
The officer, or citizen in certain cases, must swear before a magistrate or a court clerk to tell the truth. Having taken an oath, the officer must tell what is known about the case. If the magistrate concludes that there is probable cause to believe that an offense occurred and the accused person committed it, the complaint is filed.
The next step in the process is to formally arrest the person accused in the complaint. Sometimes a person is already in custody. Otherwise the accused must be arrested. A summons can be issued by the magistrate or court clerk. It is delivered personally or by mail to the accused, who must then appear in court on a specified date. In certain cases, when the crime is serious, or the authorities believe the accused will not voluntarily appear in court, a warrant is issued. A warrant empowers police to physically arrest an accused person and take him into custody.
In the case of a warrant arrest, bail must be set. Bail allows the person accused of the offense to be released from custody upon the payment of money. It is designed to ensure that an accused will appear in court.
After the arrest, which frequently includes completing an arrest report of vital information about the accused and taking fingerprints and photographs, a first appearance in court is scheduled for the accused. This first appearance before a judge is called the arraignment. It usually occurs in the municipal court of the town where the crime is alleged to have been committed. At arraignment the accused must be informed of the nature of the charge, his right to remain silent, and to have counsel. An accused may request a probable cause hearing to actually learn the identity of witnesses and the underlying facts of the case given through sworn testimony.
When a complaint is filed, copies are sent to the county prosecutor, who assigns an assistant prosecutor and detectives to complete any further investigation to prepare the case for presentation to the grand jury. The prosecutor must present sworn testimony to the grand jury. It must be sufficient to prove that a crime occurred and that the defendant committed it. The evidence must justify the grand jury's conclusion that a trial should be undertaken by a jury of twelve citizens to determine whether in fact the State can meets its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the accused person's guilt.
When a grand jury makes a decision to indict, it votes to return an indictment. This process is called returning a true bill. The indictment is a formal document filed with the Superior Court stating the name of the defendant and the crime or crimes voted upon by the grand jury. After a true bill is voted and an indictment filed with the court, a conference is scheduled to determine if the defendant has a lawyer. After that, the matter is scheduled for arraignment in the Superior Court, Law Division, Criminal Part. At the arraignment, the criminal defense lawyer informs the judge that his client is not guilty.
After the arraignment, conferences are scheduled as needed. The prosecutor and defense attorney exchange discovery - reports, statements and documents. Decisions are made about the sufficiency of the case and the need for further investigation. The lawyer and client should spend sufficient time reviewing the discovery to decide whether or not they should negotiate with the prosecutor or plan to take the case to trial. Sometimes decisions are made to apply for pretrial intervention which diverts the case from prosecution.
If a defendant and his lawyer are in agreement and make a plea bargain with the prosecutor, a plea of guilty is placed upon the record in front of the judge. The plea includes a defendant's admission of guilt and the facts that support the guilty plea. There must be a dialogue with the judge in which questions are asked of the accused to ensure that the deal is fair to both sides.
If there is no plea bargain, and the case is not diverted through pretrial intervention, or dismissed for other legal grounds, the case is scheduled for trial.
If there is a conviction either through plea or trial, the matter is scheduled for sentencing. If a defendant is exonerated by a jury, then the matter is closed.
A defendant always has the right to appeal from an adverse finding at the conclusion of the case.