criminal procedure | Definition

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

Criminal procedure is another name for procedural criminal law, which is the body of law that dictates how criminal cases are processed by the criminal justice system.

Also referred to as procedural law.

Criminal procedure is a subset of constitutional law that dictates the series of steps that follow a criminal offense. These procedures are intended to protect the constitutional rights of individuals and to maintain a fair and just legal system. Criminal procedure, also known as procedural criminal law, outlines the way in which criminal cases should be processed by the criminal justice system. It’s like the rulebook that guides how criminal cases are handled from start to finish.

Importance of Criminal Procedure

The importance of criminal procedure cannot be overstated. It ensures the fair treatment of individuals who are suspected or accused of criminal behavior. Without these procedures in place, the justice system could become arbitrary and could potentially violate individuals’ rights.

Criminal procedure also ensures consistency in the justice system. By having a standard set of procedures that must be followed in every case, the system is more likely to operate fairly and predictably. This can provide a sense of trust in the justice system and help ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law.

Stages of Criminal Procedure

Criminal procedure can be divided into several stages. Understanding these stages can help us better understand the path that a criminal case takes from the initial investigation through to the final sentencing.


The first stage in criminal procedure is the investigation. This is when law enforcement officers collect evidence and look for suspects. The investigation might involve interviewing witnesses, collecting physical evidence, and following leads. It’s important that law enforcement follows certain rules during this stage to protect individuals’ rights. For instance, they may need to obtain a warrant before searching a person’s property.


If law enforcement officers believe they have enough evidence, they may arrest a suspect. This is another crucial stage in criminal procedure, as the arrested individual has certain rights that must be respected, such as the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.


Once a person has been arrested, the case is typically handed over to a prosecutor. The prosecutor reviews the evidence and decides whether to file charges and what those charges should be. This stage involves a lot of legal analysis and decision-making.

Court Proceedings

After charges are filed, the case moves to the court system. The accused person (now called the defendant) appears before a judge to enter a plea. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case proceeds to trial. The trial is a critical stage in criminal procedure, as it involves presenting evidence, questioning witnesses, and making legal arguments.


If the defendant is found guilty, the case moves to the sentencing stage. The judge decides what punishment is appropriate based on the crime and the circumstances. This could involve fines, probation, or imprisonment.

Key Principles of Criminal Procedure

Criminal procedure is guided by several key principles. These principles are rooted in the Constitution and are intended to protect individuals’ rights.

Due Process

Due process is a fundamental principle of criminal procedure. It means that the government must respect all the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law. This includes the right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Equal Protection

The principle of equal protection means that the law must be applied equally to everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or other characteristics. This principle is crucial in ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system.

Presumption of Innocence

In criminal procedure, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This means that it is the prosecution’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Rights of the Accused

Criminal procedure also encompasses the rights of the accused during the criminal process. These rights are safeguarded to prevent the abuse of authority and maintain fairness in the criminal justice system. Let’s look at some of these crucial rights.

Right to Remain Silent

The right to remain silent, closely associated with Miranda rights, is a key part of criminal procedure. It means that a suspect does not have to say anything that might incriminate them. This right is communicated to suspects during their arrest and is a critical component of fair police interrogation procedures.

Right to Legal Representation

Another vital right is the right to legal representation. If a person can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for them. This right ensures that every accused person, regardless of their financial situation, has a fair chance to defend themselves in court.

Right to a Speedy and Public Trial

The right to a speedy and public trial prevents the government from keeping individuals in detention for a long period without trial. A public trial ensures transparency in the legal proceedings.

Right to Confront Witnesses

The accused has the right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against them. This right allows the defense to question the credibility and reliability of the evidence presented by the prosecution.

Procedural Safeguards

Criminal procedure also includes various safeguards against potential abuses in the criminal justice system. One such safeguard is the exclusionary rule, which prevents evidence obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights from being used against them in a court of law.

Similarly, the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment prevents an individual from being tried twice for the same offense. This rule safeguards individuals from being subjected to repeated prosecutions for the same crime.


Understanding criminal procedure is crucial for anyone involved in the criminal justice system, whether as a law enforcement officer, a lawyer, a judge, or even as a citizen. It serves as a framework for how our society responds to crime, providing a road map for the progression of criminal cases from the initial investigation to the final verdict and sentencing. It also ensures the protection of individuals’ constitutional rights and fairness in the criminal justice system. Whether in the classroom, in a court of law, or in our everyday lives, criminal procedure is a fundamental aspect of our legal system that impacts us all.

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Last Modified: 05/15/2023

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