Criminal justice process

The criminal justice system is made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the judge and jury.

Here are the main steps in the criminal justice process for crimes that are punishable by at least one year and one day in a state prison (adult felonies). For information about adult, non-felony cases consult the city attorney for the city where the crime happened. For juvenile case information, review the juvenile justice system overview.

The description of the process is not legal advice and does not cover every case or situation.

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The police respond to, and investigate, reported incidents. They investigate to determine whether what happened could be considered a crime and if there is enough evidence to present the case to the County Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.

There are three levels of crimes:

  1. Felonies have a sentence of at least one year and one day in state prison.
  2. Gross Misdemeanors generally have a sentence of up to 365 days in a local jail.
  3. Misdemeanors generally have a sentence of up to 90 days in a local jail.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office prosecutes adult felonies and all levels of juvenile crime that occur in Hennepin County.

Prosecutors in the adult criminal divisions of the County Attorney’s Office review the police file to determine if there is enough evidence to charge a crime.

The office files charges when there is enough believable evidence that a conviction at trial is likely.

If there is not enough evidence, the prosecutor will either refer the case back to law enforcement for more investigation or will not file charges.

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

A complaint is a formal a written statement of the charges against a defendant. The complaint has a statement of facts showing that there is probable cause to believe the offense was committed and the person charged (defendant) committed it. The complaint must also include the name of the crime, the statute number of the law that was broken, and the maximum penalty for the crime.

The complaint is first signed under oath by the investigating officer and sent to the prosecutor. The prosecutor approves the complaint by signing it and sends it to the judge. The judge then determines if the complaint has shown probable cause to support the criminal charges and approves it by signing the complaint. These signatures are done electronically.

Types of criminal complaints

  • Detention complaint – 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 a defendant is not in custody, the complaint will be issued by warrant or summons.
  • Warrant – a court order in the complaint authorizing police officers to arrest and jail the defendant before the defendant’s first appearance in court.
  • Summons – a court order in the complaint that requires the defendant to appear in court on a specific day. This type of complaint is mailed to the defendant.


Crimes that carry a potential life sentence, including certain murders and criminal sexual conduct, must be heard by the grand jury before being charged. The grand jury is an independent body of up to 23 randomly selected citizens from a cross-section of qualified county residents. If the grand jury determines there is probable cause to believe that the crime has been committed and that the defendant has committed it, the grand jury issues charges in a document called an indictment.

If the grand jury finds that there is not enough evidence to support criminal charges, then there is a “no bill.”

To protect the independence of the grand jury, court rules and state laws require that grand jury proceedings be kept confidential.

At a defendant’s first appearance in court, also called an arraignment, the defendant is informed of the charges and his or her rights, including the right to an attorney. 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.”

The judge also sets bail and conditions of release. Bail is money the defendant must pay to make sure they appear at trial. The judge decides if, and how much, bail is required. In setting bail the judge considers a number of factors including the seriousness of the charges, the defendant’s criminal history, and whether the defendant is likely to appear in court. In some cases, a defendant may be released without bail.

Conditions of release may include no contact with victims or witnesses, a geographic restriction, random drug testing or other conditions the judge considers appropriate. All defendants who are released are ordered to attend their court appearances and remain law abiding by not committing any new crimes.

At a pre-trial conference the prosecutor and defense attorney determine whether the case can be resolved without trial. There are several possible resolutions without a trial.

Resolutions without a trial:

  • Plead guilty as charged – defendant admits guilt to the charged offense. The case then moves on to sentencing.
  • Plead guilty to an amended charge – defendant admits guilt to a different charge than original. The case then moves on to sentencing.
  • Diversion – case is suspended while defendant participates in a diversion program. The case is dismissed if defendant successfully completes the program or returned to court if the defendant does not complete the program. This resolution is used for less serious crimes and allows the defendant to avoid a felony record.
  • Dismissal – case is dismissed and defendant goes free.

If the case does not resolve and is going to trial, the pre-trial hearing also addresses issues such as matters of evidence, constitutional issues, and other issues related to trial.

A defendant has a right to a jury trial for any offense punishable by jail or prison time. Felonies are heard by juries of 12 people, and gross misdemeanors are heard by juries of 6 people.

The jury is composed of randomly selected citizens from a cross-section of qualified county residents. The judge and attorneys for both sides question potential jurors to determine who should serve on the jury. This process is called jury selection or voir dire.

The prosecution must present enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime happened and that the defendant committed it. Prosecution evidence includes the testimony of witnesses and exhibits such as pictures, audio and video recordings, and physical items. The defendant has the opportunity to present evidence but is not required to do so. The jury must reach a unanimous verdict for a defendant to be convicted of a crime.

A defendant may also choose to have the trial heard by a judge rather than a jury.

A defendant is found guilty (convicted) of a crime if the jury finds there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant is found not guilty (acquitted) if the jury finds that there was not enough evidence.

If a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty at trial, a probation officer may be assigned to do an investigation before sentencing (pre-sentence investigation or PSI). The probation officer gathers information about the possible sentence for the crime and additional information about the defendant. They may also gather information about the impact of the crime from the victim. The officer then gives a report to the judge with recommendations about sentencing. On occasion, if a defendant pleads guilty, the court may proceed immediately to sentencing.

At the sentencing hearing, prosecutors and defense attorneys present their positions with regard to what they believe is an appropriate sentence.

Under Minnesota law, the victim(s) is entitled to tell the court, through a victim impact statement, how the crime affected them. Community members may also demonstrate the indirect impact of a crime on the larger community, through a community impact statement. The prosecution presents impact statements to the court. Read more about impact statements.

The judge determines the sentence, taking into account the sentence recommended by state guidelines, other information in the pre-sentence investigation, impact statements and suggestions from the prosecutor and defense attorney.

Sentences can include:

  • Prison time at a state facility
  • Jail time at a local facility
  • Money paid to the victim for expenses related to the crime (restitution)
  • Labor performed to benefit the community (community service)
  • Probation - while under the supervision of Hennepin County Probation, the defendant gets to live at home, work or attend school until the sentence is completed. If the defendant commits another crime or breaks probation rules, he or she can be sent to prison.
  • Other penalties recommended or negotiated by attorneys and agreed to by the judge

More information

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