The law deals with two kinds of cases: civil and criminal. Civil cases involve conflicts between people or institutions and occur when a person or organization files a complaint in court. Criminal cases involve enforcing the behaviors of individuals or institutions, with charges against the person alleged to have committed the crime brought by the  government. Divorce, child support, custody, etc. make up a very large number of civil cases. Automobile collisions are common civil cases if a driver or passenger sues the other driver, but could be a criminal case if there are allegations of a crime (drunken driving or leaving the scene of an accident.)

Pre-trial Procedures in Civil Cases

The initial document, a complaint, is filed by the plaintiff/petitioner, stating the claims against the defendant/respondent. The complaint states the plaintiff’s version of the facts, the legal reason for the case being brought, and asks for damages/relief. The plaintiff will then file a request with the court clerk that a legal notice (summons) be issued to the defendant, informing the defendant of the lawsuit filed against him or her, as well as the date and location of the court where the case will be heard. This summons is often served by a deputy sheriff or special process server, but may be served by mail. The defendant can then submit a written answer admitting or denying the allegations made in the complaint, as well as file for dismissal of the complaint or file a counterclaim. Common pre-trial motions include: “motion to dismiss” for unfounded or malicious lawsuits, “motion for summary judgement” when there are no factual issues for a jury to decide, and “motion in limine” to exclude certain evidence.

Pre-trial Procedures in Criminal Cases

After a witness makes a statement to police and they perform an investigation, an indictment can be issued by a grand jury (in the case of felonies), or an information can be issued by the prosecutor and an arrest can be made. This is the first formal notification to the defendant. The criminal charges are orally presented at the arraignment, and a plea (of guilty or not guilty) is entered by the defendant. Before the trial, different motions may also be filed. Common pre-trial motions include: “motion to dismiss” when the defense attorney does not believe there is enough evidence, “motion for change of venue” when the defense attorney believes that pre-trial publicity prevent the defendant from receiving a fair trial, and “motion to suppress evidence” when the attorney believes the defendants 4th and 5th amendment rights have been violated. Pre-trial procedures in criminal cases are similar to civil cases, but with important variations depending on the severity of the crime. The more important the offense, the more elaborate the process. Serious crimes such as robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and sexual assault, are considered felonies and are punishable by imprisonment of one year or more in a state or federal penitentiary. Less serious crimes, such as simple assault, driving while intoxicated, and trespassing, are considered misdemeanors and are punishable by incarceration of less than a year, usually in a local jail. Minor moving violations, parking violations, and littering are considered petty misdemeanors and are usually just punished by fines.

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***This post is a generalization of pre-trial criminal and civil case procedures. Processes and steps vary by courts and states.