Because the criminal court process is based on the U.S. Constitution, the justice system is similar nationwide. There are slight differences in each state, though. Here's an overview of what happens in West Virginia.
In West Virginia, if there is probable cause to believe a person committed a crime, he can be arrested. Often that happens after an officer has gathered evidence and asked a judge for an arrest warrant. An officer can make an arrest on the spot, though, if he witnesses a crime. No matter how the arrest happens, before officers ask any questions they must inform suspects of their Miranda rights: they have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. Cases can be thrown out later if suspects aren't advised of these Constitutional rights.
Shortly after appearing before a magistrate, a suspect of a serious crime is booked at a police station. The process includes fingerprinting and photographing. Valuables such as cell phones and credit cards are confiscated and stored.
The First Appearance
In West Virginia, a suspect is immediately taken before a local magistrate, who informs the defendant again of his rights. If the crime is a misdemeanor, the accused can be tried immediately if he requests that. If the offense is a felony, the accused has the right to request a preliminary hearing. The magistrate also sets bail.
A preliminary hearing, if requested, must be held within 10 days of an arrest if the defendant is in custody, or 20 days if he's been released. It's a probable cause hearing where a magistrate determines if there's enough reason to believe a crime was committed and that the defendant committed it.
The vast majority of criminal cases never go to trial. Most of the time defendants plead guilty or no contest to lesser charges that bring lighter sentences.
In West Virginia, cases usually go to a grand jury for indictment after probable cause has been found in the preliminary hearing. An information—where a suspect agrees to be subject to the charges and usually indicates a plea agreement—is allowed in all cases except where the crime is punishable by life in prison. After the indictment or information, the defendant is arraigned again in circuit court.
In West Virginia, people can be tried before a judge if both sides agree, though most felonies are tried before juries. At the trial, both sides present evidence and the judge or jury decides if the prosecutor has proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If all jurors can't agree, a mistrial will be declared and those charges can be tried again before new jurors.
Judges must hand down sentences according to ranges set in state law. For example, first-degree murder carries a life sentence, while second-degree murder is a 10- to 40-year term. The judge has discretion in deciding whether sentences for multiple crimes are to be served consecutively (one after the other) or concurrently (at the same time.)
Consult a Lawyer
This article outlines West Virginia's justice system. If you're accused of a crime, contact a local lawyer as quickly as possible so that you can get the best advice for your specific situation.