charge | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

A criminal charge is a formal accusation brought by law enforcement, alleging a person committed a crime, initiating legal proceedings against them.

In the criminal justice context, the term charge can be used both as a verb and a noun. As a verb, “to charge” refers to the act of formally accusing someone of committing a crime, often by a prosecutor or law enforcement official. This process involves presenting evidence and allegations that indicate the person’s involvement in the criminal activity. On the other hand, when used as a noun, a “charge” refers to the actual accusation or allegation made against a person for a specific crime. This includes the details of the offense and the legal basis for pursuing prosecution. Understanding the distinction between the verb and noun usage of “charge” helps clarify the different aspects of the criminal justice process.

In the criminal justice system, a charge represents a formal accusation stating that an individual has committed a crime. Charges are typically initiated by prosecutors or other law enforcement officials who possess evidence suggesting that the accused individual has indeed engaged in criminal activity. The process of charging someone with a crime serves as the foundation for initiating legal proceedings against the individual and holds them accountable for their actions.

After a person has been charged with a crime, they are generally arrested and taken into custody by law enforcement. This ensures that the accused individual is available for subsequent legal proceedings and minimizes the risk of them fleeing or tampering with evidence. Following the arrest, the individual is usually brought before a judge for an initial hearing or arraignment, where they are informed of the charges against them and their legal rights.

At the arraignment, the accused person is given an opportunity to enter a plea in response to the charge. They may choose to plead guilty, not guilty, or, in some cases, no contest. If the individual pleads guilty, they are essentially admitting to the crime and accepting responsibility for their actions. Consequently, the judge will proceed to sentence the individual, taking into account factors such as the severity of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

On the other hand, if the accused person pleads not guilty, they are asserting their innocence and challenging the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In this situation, the case will advance to the trial stage, where the prosecution and defense present their arguments and evidence before a jury or a judge. The jury, composed of members of the community or the judge in a bench trial, will then determine whether the accused person is guilty or not guilty of the charge.

During the trial, both the prosecution and defense have the opportunity to call witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments to support their respective positions. The prosecution bears the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense aims to raise doubts about the defendant’s guilt and protect their client’s rights.

If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will proceed to sentence them according to the guidelines and laws relevant to the specific crime. Sentencing may involve incarceration, fines, probation, community service, or a combination of these penalties. If the defendant is found not guilty, they are acquitted of the charge and released from custody.

Police Versus Prosecutors

Note that there is a distinction between the initial charge levied by the police and the formal charge levied by the prosecution. When the police arrest a suspect, they may initially charge the person with a crime based on the evidence and circumstances they have observed. This preliminary charge often guides the investigation and helps determine whether the suspect should be held in custody or released.

However, the formal charge is ultimately determined by the prosecutor, who reviews the evidence collected by the police and decides which specific crime or crimes to charge the suspect with. This formal charge is then presented to the court, where the accused will have an opportunity to enter a plea. The distinction between the initial charge by the police and the formal charge by the prosecution highlights the different roles and responsibilities of law enforcement and prosecution in the criminal justice process.

In conclusion, a charge in the criminal justice context signifies a formal accusation that an individual has committed a crime, based on evidence gathered by law enforcement or prosecutors. The process of charging someone initiates legal proceedings against the accused person and holds them accountable for their actions. Depending on the plea entered and the outcome of the trial, the accused individual may be found guilty or not guilty, with subsequent sentencing reflecting the nature and severity of the crime.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/06/2023

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