Legal System

Criminal Procedure

The legal system can be very confusing to anyone who hasn’t spent time studying the law. The legal system in the United States is a constantly evolving and complex structure. Laws change all the time and their application varies greatly by state and circumstance. This section is intended to provide a general overview of the adult criminal legal process—from arrest to conviction and beyond. It will also present the state and federal court systems to show where cases begin and how they can move through the courts.

The primary goal of the adult criminal legal process is to achieve justice by protecting the rights of the accused and the safety of society. During a criminal trial, the defendant’s civil liberties are at stake. For this reason, the criminal process is designed to ensure that the accused receives a fair and just trial. The founders of our nation were very concerned with the judicial process. As a result, they added the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments) to the US Constitution. Much of the legal process is governed by these guidelines, set forth hundreds of years ago.

Civil and criminal cases can be handled in the state or federal courts. When a criminal case involves the violation of a federal law, the federal courts will have jurisdiction. When a criminal case involves a violation of state law, the state courts have the power and authority to handle the case. Where a case begins depends on where the alleged crime was committed and whether it was a violation of state or federal law. Every state has developed a unique court system, which varies slightly from place to place. All states have four levels of courts. In ascending order, these state courts are:

  • courts of limited jurisdiction
  • courts of original jurisdiction
  • courts of appeals
  • and the courts of last resort (usually the state supreme court).

The federal courts function separately from the state courts. Criminal cases, on the federal level, will usually begin at one of 94 US District Courts. There is at least one district court in each state and one in each of the following: District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. There is also the Federal Court of Appeals which has strictly appellate jurisdiction. The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation. The Supreme Court selects the cases it will hear from the state and federal court systems, based on the significance of the legal question in dispute.

The diagrams and explanations included in this section are designed to provide you with an introductory look at the American Legal system. Because this is such and intricate and dynamic system, there are many more parts to this process.

Legal System Diagrams

  • Adult Criminal Process Diagram
  • State Courts Diagram
  • Federal Courts Diagram

Learn about the Source of Law

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