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Criminal Procedure before Trial

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Criminal procedure controls the process of investigating crime and convicting criminals. It protects Americans well before a trial begins. When the police investigate a crime, the Fourth Amendment limits their investigation. Police may not search a private place without a warrant and probable cause. Probable cause means good reason to believe the place has evidence to be seized or criminals to be arrested. The Fourth Amendment also requires the police to have a warrant to arrest a criminal suspect.

There are exceptions to these rules. The police may arrest a person without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe a person has committed a felony. Because felons can be dangerous to society, arresting them quickly is more important than making the police get a warrant. The police also may arrest a person without a warrant when he commits a crime in the officer's presence.

When the police arrest a suspect, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments protect the suspect's rights. One of those is the right not to be a witness against oneself. This is called the right against self-incrimination. It prevents the government from forcing a suspect to talk about a crime, make a confession, or share any evidence that could be used against him.

The Sixth Amendment gives all suspects the right to have an attorney. If the suspect cannot afford an attorney, the government must pay one to defend him. The suspect is allowed to have the attorney present during all police questioning. The attorney also must be allowed to watch if the police conduct a line-up. A line-up is when the suspect stands among a group of people to see if the victim can identify him. The suspect's attorney is allowed to be there to make sure the line-up is fair.

In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court used the right against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney to create the famous warning that police officers must give when they arrest a suspect. It is called reading the suspect his rights. Police must tell the suspect he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court. The police also must tell the suspect he has the right to have an attorney, and that the government will appoint one if he cannot afford one. If the suspect says he or she wants to remain silent and get an attorney, the police cannot ask them any questions about the crime.

After the police arrest a suspect, the court conducts a preliminary hearing. There the government presents its evidence to a magistrate to show that it has probable cause to believe the defendant has committed a crime. It the magistrate agrees, the suspect is required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the plea is guilty, the case goes right to the sentencing phase. If the plea is not guilty, the magistrate sets bail. Bail is an amount of money the defendant needs to pay the court to be released while waiting for a trial. The Eighth Amendment says bail may not be too high. If the defendant pays his bail and shows up for trial, he gets his money back. If he fails to show up for trial, he forfeits the money and the court issues a warrant for his arrest.

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