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Guide to the Criminal Process in Arizona

Posted on April 12, 2023 in Criminal Defense

If you get charged with a misdemeanor or felony crime in Arizona, it is important to know what comes next. Understanding the criminal process can make it easier to properly navigate. Avoiding surprises can help you stay one step ahead and protect your legal rights as a defendant. 

If you are facing criminal charges in Phoenix, contact the criminal defense lawyers at AZ Defenders as soon as possible for assistance with the criminal process. We are highly experienced defense attorneys who know how the criminal justice system works in Arizona.

Police Investigation

First, the police will investigate the alleged crime by traveling to the scene and speaking to witnesses. Law enforcement will interview those who were involved, including the alleged victim. They will also arrange for any medical care, such as calling for an ambulance if someone has been injured. Detectives and crime scene investigators may be called to the scene to collect any potential evidence, including fingerprints and official photographs.

The Arrest

If the scene of the crime provides enough evidence for the police to find probable cause, you could be arrested on the spot if you are a suspect. Otherwise, the police will continue their investigation until they have enough evidence to obtain a warrant for your arrest. At the time of arrest, use your right to remain silent. Politely decline to answer any questions until you have an attorney present. The police can twist your words around and use anything you say against you during your case. The best way to protect yourself is by not saying anything.


If you get arrested, you will be detained in a local jail. Here, you will be booked, meaning your mugshot and fingerprints will be taken and you will be given a booking number. Again, do not answer any police questions while you are in detainment. Continue to state that you wish to have an attorney present until you are permitted to make a phone call. Use the call to either notify a family member and ask them to contact an attorney for you or call a criminal defense lawyer directly at (480) 568-4473. AZ Defenders is available 24/7.

Initial Appearance in Court

If you get arrested, you must be brought before a judge within 24 hours. This is called the Initial Appearance. The purpose is to inform you of the reason why you were arrested and to set your conditions for release, such as a bail amount. You may also be released on your “own recognizance,” meaning the courts release you on the expectation that you will return for future court dates. The Maricopa County Superior Court holds Initial Appearance hearings every three hours.

Formal Charges Filed

The prosecutor will work with law enforcement to determine if there is enough evidence to file criminal charges against you. If there is insufficient evidence, the investigation may continue or the prosecutor may decide to close your case. If there is sufficient evidence, however, the prosecution will file charges through a direct complaint or Grand Jury indictment. A direct complaint provides a document with the details of the alleged offense to a judge for the judge to decide whether or not to prosecute. Grand Jury indictment means the prosecutor presents evidence to nine randomly selected citizens to review the case and decide if there is enough for charges.

Pre-Trial Conferences and Preliminary Hearing

There are opportunities for the defendant and prosecutor to try to negotiate a plea deal or resolve the case prior to it going to trial in Arizona. It may be possible to negotiate for a reduced sentence, for example, and skip a trial if both parties can agree. This can be done through a status conference. If an agreement cannot be reached, the case will proceed to the preliminary hearing. This hearing will decide whether the case will go to trial based on the evidence available.


Unless a plea deal is negotiated, an arraignment hearing will be held 10 days after the prosecution files a direct complaint or Grand Jury indictment. At the arraignment, you will be informed of the charges that have been entered against you, advised of your right to hire an attorney, and asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest. It is important to hire a criminal defense attorney before your arraignment so that you know how to plead. If you cannot afford a private attorney, a public defender will be appointed to you.

Criminal Trial

You have the constitutional right to a trial by a judge or jury of your peers. Depending on your case, you will await your criminal trial at home or in jail. Note that a plea agreement can be made at any point before the first day of a trial. A criminal trial in Arizona will consist of the following parts: 

  • Opening statements
  • Witness examination
  • Evidence presentation
  • Cross-examination
  • Redirect examination
  • Closing arguments
  • Juror instructions and deliberation
  • Verdict

In a criminal trial, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. It is their job to prove that you are guilty of the crime(s) being charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Your lawyer will present the strongest possible defense for your case in an attempt to show that the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof.


After deliberation, if the jury returns with a guilty verdict, you will hear your punishment at a separate sentencing hearing. At this hearing, a judge will hear testimony from both sides of the case regarding the punishment that they feel you should receive based on the circumstances. Arizona law establishes a range of potential penalties for different crimes, including fines, probation, restitution, mandatory counseling and/or jail time.

Appeals and Post-Conviction Relief

After you receive your sentence, you have the right to challenge the conviction by filing an appeal. An appeal is a formal request that asks a higher court to review the case to determine if mistakes were made or if your rights were violated. You can also file a petition for post-conviction relief. This asserts that the court did not have the proper jurisdiction to try your case under the federal or state constitution, new facts about the case have been discovered, or laws have been changed that could affect your sentence. 

For more information about the criminal process in Arizona and legal advice about your specific case, contact AZ Defenders for a free consultation. We can walk you through each step of the legal process.