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Criminal Justice System: How It Works

The criminal justice process is complex, and often can be confusing to persons not familiar with criminal law.  This arrest-to-sentence guide and legal glossary are designed to explain and clarify the criminal justice process in New York County.

The Police and the Arrest

What is the function of the police?

In addition to ensuring the security of the citizenry and using the means at their disposal to prevent crimes, the police investigate crimes and arrest individuals who are suspected of committing crimes.

What is a lawful arrest?

Most criminal actions begin when a person is taken into police custody.  An arrest is lawful when the police officer has probable cause to believe that the person being arrested has committed a particular offense.

What happens when someone is arrested?

Once the defendant is in custody, he may be identified by the victim or witnesses, and he may make a statement to the police.  He will always be searched, and the officers are entitled to seize any contraband or evidence found during the search.  Evidence includes the proceeds of the crime, any tools used to commit the crime, distinctive clothing, or other items that help to connect the defendant with the crime, the victim or with the scene of the crime.  The arresting officer takes seized property to be vouchered by the NYPD Property Clerk's Division.

Once transported to the precinct, the defendant will be fingerprinted.  The arresting officer also prepares the arrest report, the complaint report, and other police forms at this time.

For some less serious crimes, the arresting officer may give the defendant a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT).  A DAT releases a defendant from custody before arraignment and requires the defendant to appear for arraignment on a specified date.  If the defendant does not meet the criteria for a DAT, he will be taken from the precinct to Central Booking for further processing. Meanwhile, an Assistant District Attorney speaks with the arresting Police Officer about the case.
 

What types of charges are there in New York?

In New York there are three major classes of offenses for which a person may be prosecuted. They are violations, misdemeanors and felonies.  Some are defined in the Penal Law of New York State, and others can be found in statutes such as the Vehicle and Traffic Law or in local ordinances, such as the New York City Administrative Code.

A violation is an offense that carries the lowest sanction, and is not defined as a crime.  The maximum term of imprisonment is fifteen days. Examples of violations are unlawful possession of marijuana, drinking alcohol in public, harassment, and disorderly conduct.

A misdemeanor is the less serious crime.  It is higher than a violation.  Misdemeanors are divided into two classes: "A" and "B."  The maximum terms of imprisonment are one year in county jail for an “A” misdemeanor and three months in jail for a "B" misdemeanor.  Examples of misdemeanors are shoplifting, trespassing in a building, and jumping a turnstile.

A felony is the more serious crime.  Felonies are crimes for which more than one year of imprisonment may be imposed.  Felonies are divided into five classes: “A” through “E.” An “A” felony is the most serious, an "E" felony is the least serious.  Examples of felonies are robbery, burglary, grand larceny, sale of narcotics, and murder.

What is a lawful arrest?

Most criminal actions begin when a person is taken into police custody.  An arrest is lawful when the police officer has probable cause to believe that the person being arrested has committed a particular offense.