Steps Through the Criminal Legal Process

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Steps through the Criminal Legal System

Important: The Victims’ Rights Act (VRA) gives rights to victims in the criminal legal process. To learn more about victims’ rights, contact a LINC Navigator or click here to read more about victims’ rights.


When an event happens that might be a crime and someone reports the event to law enforcement. For example, the victim or a person who saw what happened calls the police.

Child Abuse and At-Risk Adult Reporting: Some events must be reported by people who are “mandatory reporters.” Mandatory reporters are people who have to tell the police or a government agency when they believe a child (under age 18) or at-risk adult is being mistreated or abused. Mandatory reporters have to report what they saw or heard immediately (for children) or within 24 hours (for at-risk adults).

  • Some professionals are required to report child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services. To learn more about which professionals are mandatory reporters, click here. To report child abuse, call 1-844-CO-4-KIDS.
    • To  see Colorado statutes on reporting child abuse and neglect, click here.
  • Some professionals are required to report possible abuse, neglect, or exploitation of at-risk individuals and elders to law enforcement. Mandatory reporters include: health care professionals, pharmacists, psychologists and mental health care providers, social workers, long-term care providers, care facility staff, home health providers, clergy members, law enforcement officials and personnel, fire protection personnel, people who work in schools, victim's advocate, court-appointed guardians and conservators and people who work at banks and other financial institutions. To report abuse, neglect, or exploitation of at-risk individuals or elders, call 911.
    • To  see Colorado statutes on reporting possible abuse, neglect, or exploitation of at-risk adults, click here.
    • Your lawyer is not a mandatory reporter.

Sexual Assault Reporting: Following a sexual assault, a victim might choose to go to a hospital or other health care facility for a forensic medical exam (often called a “rape kit” or “SANE exam”). In some medical facilities, these examinations are done by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). These are nurses who have specialized training to perform forensic medical exams, including collecting evidence. For example, Denver Health has a SANE program. A SANE exam involves checking people for injuries as well as collecting evidence that may be used in the criminal legal case. When adults have a SANE exam, Colorado law gives them 3 choices for reporting (these choices do not apply to minors under age 18 or at-risk adults including people with disabilities and elder adults):

  1. Law Enforcement Report. The victim chooses to have a medical forensic (SANE) exam and report the incident to law enforcement. A law enforcement officer may meet the person at the location where the SANE exam takes place. A follow-up interview with a detective may be scheduled.
  2. Medical Report. The victim chooses to have a medical forensic (SANE) exam, but does not choose to participate in the criminal legal system at that time. The evidence and information collected during the exam can be tested (if the victim gives permission, which is called consent). If the victim consents, the evidence and information collected are stored by local law enforcement, using the person’s name. The victim gives permission for the evidence and information collected during the exam to be given to law enforcement along with their name and contact information. The victim can choose to have the evidence tested. Victims who want to make a Law Enforcement Report should do so within two years; after two years, the evidence may be destroyed.
  3. Anonymous Report. The person chooses to have a medical forensic (SANE) exam, but does not choose to participate in the criminal legal system at that time. Evidence and information collected during the exam are given to law enforcement for storage only. The evidence is stored using a unique identifying number, not the victim’s name.  Law enforcement does not receive any information about the person (for example, law enforcement does not have the victim’s name or contact information). With Medical and Anonymous Reports, people can decide later that they want to explore participating in the criminal legal process. The victim’s evidence is not tested unless and until they decide to report to Law Enforcement. Victims who want to make a Law Enforcement Report should do so within two years; after two years, the evidence may be destroyed.

A law enforcement officer investigates what happened. To investigate, the officer might do things such as: interview the victim, interview people who saw what happened (called witnesses), interview the suspect, listen to any 911 recordings about the incident, or collect evidence such as emails and texts. Some sources of evidence (such as phones and computers) often have other private information that has nothing to do with the crime. It is important to make sure evidence is collected in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily violate a victim’s privacy. For example, one way to collect relevant evidence without also violating a victim’s privacy is having the police officer take pictures or screen shots of specific texts on a victim’s phone, rather than “dumping” or downloading all of the phone’s information (which would include all call logs, texts, emails, contact info, GPS info, etc.).

If the officer collects enough information to determine that a crime has happened, they might make an arrest or issue a citation. A citation is a ticket that is used to charge a person with a crime where there is no need for an arrest. Citations are generally used for non-violent, fineable offenses and those that carry little incarceration (jail) time.

Note: Colorado has a “probable arrest” law for Domestic Violence. This means that if a law enforcement officer finds “probable cause” that an offense involving Domestic Violence happened, the officer must arrest the person suspected of the offense. Sometimes people call this “mandatory arrest.”

If there is not enough information to determine that a crime has taken place, the officer may close the investigation.


The officer tells the prosecutor about the investigation, which is called “presenting the case.” The prosecutor decides if there is enough evidence to file criminal charges against a person, this is also called pressing charges. Before filing charges, the prosecutor must believe they have enough information to prove to a jury at trial that the incident happened. The person charged with a crime is the defendant. The prosecutor files charges for the government. The victim never files charges.

Sometimes, a law enforcement officer has enough evidence to make an arrest immediately. If the officer makes an arrest, the person arrested is called the defendant. The defendant goes to jail. The defendant can leave jail if they post bond (also called bail); if not, they stay in jail. A mandatory protection order (MPO) will go into place to protect the victim once the defendant appears before the judge.

Note: The victim can apply for a civil protection order at any point and doesn’t have to wait until the criminal case is over. However, there might be reasons to wait until after the criminal trial. Victims may want to talk to an attorney about what makes the most sense for their case. To read more about civil protection orders, click here

The defendant appears in court and may have several court dates or hearings as the case moves forward. The first time a defendant goes to court, they are told the charges against them and advised of their rights. Bail may also be addressed. This is called the initial appearance or advisement.

If the defendant is charged with a felony, there may then be a preliminary hearing. At this hearing, the prosecutor has to show the court that they have enough evidence to prove that a crime was committed and that the defendant did it. If the prosecutor is successful, the case is set for arraignment.

At the arraignment (or at the initial appearance/advisement for misdemeanor charges) the defendant will have the opportunity to tell the court how they plead, either guilty or not guilty. If they plead guilty, a hearing will be set for sentencing. If they plead not guilty, the case may be set for trial. There may be several additional court dates as the case moves forward.

A victim has the right to attend these hearings; however, they might not be required to attend. During this time, the prosecutor may come up with a plea bargain. A plea bargain is a way to resolve the case without having to go to trial. Often, the defendant pleads guilty to get something in return. For example, the defendant might plead guilty to the charge to get a particular sentence or to have another charge dismissed.

If the prosecutor and defendant can’t come to an agreement on how to resolve the case, it will move on to trial and the victim may be ordered to testify (also called a subpoena).

During the process outlined above, a victim has several rights. To read more about victims’ rights, click here

A trial could be to either a judge (court trial) or a jury (jury trial).  At trial, witnesses will be called to testify and evidence will be presented.  At the end of the trial, the judge or jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. That decision is called the verdict.  

After the Verdict

If the verdict is that the defendant is guilty (also called convicted), the defendant is then sentenced.  Depending on the crime, sentencing could take place immediately upon receiving the verdict or be set to another court date.  If the defendant is convicted, the mandatory protection order stays in place to protect the victim for the length of the sentence.

If the defendant is found not guilty (also called acquitted), the case is over. When the case is over, the mandatory protection order is released (or vacated). This means the mandatory protection order ends.

A victim will have a Mandatory Protection Order, also called a restraining order, after a crime. They may also want to request a Civil Protection Order as an added layer of protection.  Civil and mandatory protection orders are different. Here are some differences:


Civil protection orders (CPO) 

Mandatory protection orders (MPO) 

Which legal system?

Part of the civil legal system.

Part of the criminal legal system.

Who asks for a protection order?

A victim has to ask a civil court for a CPO. A victim can ask for a CPO even if there is not a criminal case, or even when there is an MPO.

When a Defendant is charged with a crime, the court enters a MPO to help protect the victim of that crime. The victim does not ask for a MPO. Even if a victim does not want a MPO, the court may still enter one.

How long does the protection order last?

In Colorado, a CPO can be made permanent. This means the order lasts forever unless one of the parties goes to court to change it. 

The MPO ends whenever the criminal case ends. Criminal cases can end at different times for different reasons. It’s important to ask victim advocates about the status of the case and MPO.

To learn more about civil protection orders, click here

Violation of any protection order is a crime and can be reported to the police.

A protection order is only one part of a safety plan.  Click here for more information on safety planning.


A subpoena is a court order that requires a person to come to court or provide information. When a subpoena is served (given to the person who has to respond), a copy has to go the court and the other party in the case or their lawyer. If a person does not respond to a subpoena, they may be punished.

The Victim Rights Act (VRA) includes protections for victim privacy in criminal cases. One way is by making sure victims are told when their private information is subpoenaed. 

Private information includes written reports or notes and verbal communications between the victim and someone else about victim’s mental health, medical history, victim compensation, education, or other information protected by Colorado’s privilege statute.

Some examples of private information that can be subpoenaed are:

  • Medical records
  • Therapist notes
  • Reports, records, and notes from schools
  • Records related to victim compensation

The courts can also subpoena private information from:

  • Church/religious officials
  • Community-based victim advocates, such as a shelter or domestic violence advocate
  • Social workers
  • Attorneys (but not defense counsel or the prosecuting attorney in a criminal case)
  • Spouses or civil union partners

The Victim Rights Act says victims have a right to be present and heard at any hearing about the subpoenas of their records.

When victims find out that someone wants to subpoena their records, they can:

  • Tell the District Attorney or their civil lawyer what they want to have happen with their records.
  • Ask for the date and time of the hearing where the release of records will be discussed. Victims have a right to be present and heard at the hearing.
  • Tell the person or agency who holds the records (for example, the doctor’s office).

Even before any records are subpoenaed, victims can tell the people or agencies where they get services that there is a criminal case. Victims can say who they want records released to, if anyone. Knowing ahead what victims want can help agencies avoid any accidental release of private information.

The laws about privacy when a crime victim has died, is incapacitated, or is a minor (under age 18) can be complicated. The crime victim’s legal representative, parent or legal guardian may want to hire a lawyer to help protect records.

There are many kinds of crime. Below are descriptions of some kinds of crimes in Colorado. For each kind of crime, Colorado law has specific definitions with more details than are given here.