What does "criminal procedure" mean and why is it important?

When a judge refers to the rules of criminal procedure, he/she is referring the rules which control how a criminal case will be handled. Rules of criminal procedure do not generally define what a violation of the law is, but rather will set out how any given criminal case will be treated as it progresses through the crminal court system. Most criminal cases will begin with an arrest. Before the police can arrest you, they must have probable cause to arrest you. Once you are arrested, you must be arraigned and informed of the charges against you. You have the right to request an attorney at arraignment. The same procedure will apply for all criminal cases.

Why Criminal Procedure Rules Matter

The rules of criminal procedure are extremely important to defendants because they are designed to guarantee constitutional due process to those individuals charged with a crime. Criminal convictions can carry severe consequences, including:

  • Paying steep fines and court costs
  • Loss of liberty by imprisonment
  • Loss of civil liberties, like the right to carry a weapon and the right to vote.

A criminal conviction can also carry a permanent stigma. Criminal procedures are designed to make sure that any given defendant receives due process and their constitutional rights are protected. Probably one of the most famous examples of criminal procedure protecting constitutional rights is the Miranda warning. After the Supreme Court 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, lawmakers in various states began implementing procedures to ensure that defendants were given warnings before they made statements to the police. Prior to 1966, very few states had procedures in place to ensure that the constitutional rights of defendants were protected. Because of rules like these, defendants have the right to confront witnesses and the right to remain silent, even during trial.

Criminal Procedure Rule Examples

If a criminal procedure is not followed, you also have the right to challenge the admissibility of the evidence that the state would like to use against you. For example, if the police took a statement from you without providing Miranda warnings, the statement could end up being suppressed, or thrown out. Whether your case will be dismissed for a violation of criminal procedures will depend on the nature of the violation and the other evidence against you. Continuing with the same example, if your confession is the only piece of evidence against you, chances are your case will be dismissed if your confession is thrown out. However, if other evidence exists that was legally obtained, the state can proceed with the case against you—they just can’t use your confession.

The rules of criminal procedure are in place to protect your rights. However, if you don’t exercise them, you could lose valuable protections and remedies. Make sure to tell your attorney if you think your rights were violated and why. Failure to contest a statement taken in violation of Miranda before or during your trial could result in a waiver. Waiver means that if you didn’t tell the trial court your rights were violated, you are banned from bringing it up later on appeal. A lawyer in your area can review your criminal case and make sure that your rights are protected with your state's local rules of criminal procedure.