Editor’s Note: This is Part I in a three-part series about the processes of the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Part I – Part IIPart III

For most people, whether they find themselves charged with a crime, or simply read or hear about someone charged, the workings of the United States Justice System can seem foreign and sometimes down-right confusing. Understanding how the justice system works, and how a case might move through the system, is something citizens should understand.

First, presumption of innocence is the basis of the United States Criminal Justice System. America does not try people in the court of public opinion. According to the Cornell Law Office’s Legal Information Institute, “One of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holds that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, each essential element of the crime charged.”

Presumption of innocence is also an international human right under the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11.

There are many factors that can affect how much involvement and what parts of the criminal justice system a person experiences. One of the most complicated parts is the court process. The court process is also the part where a person’s rights, options, and decisions can dramatically affect how much of the process they experience, and the overall outcome of their case. Additionally, the seriousness of the charges against a person and the amount of legal representation a person has can have a significant impact on the amount of time spent in the court system.

Given the gravity of many of the decisions a person can face throughout this process, it is vitally important he or she understand the implications of those decisions. The next series of articles will break down in general, but everyday, practical terms the overall court process as well as criminal court process in Colorado.

This is not legal advice or an “all inclusive” law school guide to the criminal justice system or court process. It is simply an effort to explain this hugely complicated process in more relatable terms. Ultimately, Ark Valley Voice hopes to give people a better understanding and more confidence in the system if unfortunate circumstances should land them in the court system.

There are three general paths in the court system. Each path depends on the seriousness of the crime/offense committed.

First, there is the minor offense path which includes traffic infractions, ordinances violations, and many petty offenses. Second, there is the more serious path which includes some more serious traffic offenses as well as most misdemeanor crimes. The final path includes the most serious crimes, felonies. This article will focus on the minor offense path since it is the most likely path the average person may experience.

Many of us have received a speeding ticket or another traffic related penalty for committing a traffic violation. Yes, technically, a law was broken, but it hardly makes us all criminals. Because these types of less serious offenses are the most common occurrences, they also offer the most options. The most important option is to pay the penalty assessment (fine) or contest the charge(s) in court. Paying the fine is the usual choice and thus the case is resolved with little to no court system involvement.

However, if the choice is to contest the charge(s) then the subsequent path through the court system offers different rights and opportunities than other more serious paths. One of the main differences is you are not entitled to a lawyer if you cannot afford one at this level. Of course, you can always hire your own attorney, or consult with one prior to your hearing.

At this level, remember also that your case is usually only heard by a judge, not a jury. Because of this difference, it is essential to be prepared when you attend your court hearing, and to present your case with relevant facts and details.

Part II will explore the court process for more serious crimes that involve an arrest or a summons into court.


Part I – Part IIPart III