Hennepin County Attorney
C-2000 Government Center
300 South Sixth Street
Minneapolis, MN 55487

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Criminal Justice Process

The criminal justice system is complex.  It is comprised of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge and jury, each playing a specific role.  

Below are the main steps in the criminal justice process for an adult felony case in Hennepin County, as well as the role that our office plays within this process. For information about juvenile cases, review Understanding the Juvenile Justice Process.  For information about adult, non-felony cases please consult the appropriate city attorney.  You can also view a diagram that outlines these steps.

The following is not meant to be legal advice and does not cover every case or situation.

Basic Steps in the Criminal Justice Process 

Crime Occurs and is Reported

To report a crime or suspicious activity, call 911.  If you or someone else needs assistance from emergency personnel, call 911.

To report a non-emergency, call your local police department. In Minneapolis, you can call 3-1-1 or submit an online police report.

Police Investigate
The police respond to, and investigate, reported incidents.  They investigate to determine whether a crime has occurred and if there is sufficient evidence to present the case to the prosecutor.

Felonies and all juvenile offenses are presented to the County Attorney for possible prosecution. Additionally, any crime that occurred in an unincorporated part of Hennepin County will be forwarded to the County Attorney.  Misdemeanors are submitted to the respective City Attorney.

Prosecutors Review Evidence, Make a Charging Decision

The prosecutor reviews the police case file to determine if there is sufficient evidence to charge a crime.  

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office will file charges when there is sufficient credible evidence to have a reasonable probability of obtaining a conviction at trial.    

If there is not sufficient evidence, the case will be deferred for additional investigation or charges will be declined.

Criminal Complaint and Indictment 

When there is sufficient evidence to charge a crime, the prosecutors will issue a criminal complaint.

A complaint is a written signed statement of the facts.  It establishes probable cause to believe that the charged offense has been committed and that the defendant committed it. The complaint must specify:
  • the crime(s) charged
  • the statute(s) alleged to be violated
  • the maximum penalty for the crime
  • the defendant
The complaint is signed under oath by the investigating officer before a judge, who must determine that the complaint establishes probable cause. The complaint must also be approved and signed by the prosecutor.

Types of Criminal Complaints

  • A detention complaint is issued when the defendant is in custody.  If someone is arrested without a warrant, prosecutors have 36 hours to either charge the case or release the individual.  If the nature of the offense presents a threat to public safety or the defendant appears unlikely to come to court without bail having been posted, a detention complaint is issued.
  • A warrant authorizes police officers to arrest and jail the defendant pending the defendant’s first appearance in court. 
  • A summons is a court order directing a defendant to appear in court on a specified day.  


Crimes that carry a potential life sentence, including certain murders and criminal sexual conduct charges, must be presented to a grand jury (a body composed of twenty-three citizens) and charged by indictment. 

Arraignment (First Appearance) 

At the First Appearance, the defendant is informed of charges and his/her rights, including the right to counsel.  The judge sets bail and conditions of release.  

If the defendant cannot afford to pay for an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to represent the defendant.  The defendant may enter a plea, usually “guilty” or “not guilty.”

Bail is used to ensure the defendant appears at trial and is determined at the judge’s discretion, usually based on the severity of the charges, the defendant’s criminal history and likelihood to appear in court.  In some cases, a defendant may be released without bail.  

The defendant’s release is always conditioned on appearing at all future court proceedings.  Other conditions of release may include no contact with victims or witnesses, a geographic restriction, random drug testing or other conditions the judge considers appropriate.

Omnibus Hearing (Pre-trial Conference)

At a pre-trial conference the parties determine whether the case can be resolved without trial. 

If the case is not resolved, the pretrial hearing also addresses pretrial issues such as evidentiary matters, constitutional issues, and other issues related to trial. Cases not resolved at this stage will be set for trial. Cases resolved move on to sentencing.


A defendant has a right to a jury trial for any offense punishable by incarceration. Felony cases are heard before 12-member juries and gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor cases are heard before six-member juries.  

The jury panel is composed of randomly selected individuals from a fair cross-section of qualified county residents. The court and counsel for the parties examine prospective jurors to determine who should serve on the jury.

The prosecution has the burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt through the testimony of witnesses and the introduction of exhibits. The defendant has the opportunity to present evidence but is not required to do so. The jury must reach a unanimous verdict before a defendant may be convicted of a crime.

A defendant may also choose to have the case tried by the judge, rather than a jury.


Often, if a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty after trial, a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report is ordered and a date is set for sentencing. The PSI includes the presumptive sentence for the crime (according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines) as well as additional information about the defendant.  On occasion, if a defendent pleads guilty, the court proceeds immediately to sentencing.

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution and the defense advise the court of their respective positions with regard to sentencing.  

Under Minnesota law, the victim(s) is entitled to provide a Victim Impact Statement telling the court how the crime affected him/her. Community members may also submit Community Impact Statements, demonstrating the indirect impact of a crime on the larger community.  The prosecution presents impact statements to the court.

The judge determines the sentence, taking into account the guideline sentence, other information in the PSI, impact statements and suggestions from the prosecutor and defense attorney.

Possible Resolutions: 
  • Convicted
  • Plead guilty as charged
  • Plead guilty to amended charge 
  • Diversion
  • Dismissal
  • Acquital

Types of Sentences
  • Felony executed sentence - prison time
  • Felony probationary sentence - the court sets terms and conditions which the defendant must obey, this may include incarceration at a local facility
  • For gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors, probation may include local incarceration time; prison is not a possibility

View Criminal Process Diagram