Lawyer explains: How is a criminal proceeding conducted?

How does a criminal proceeding begin?

A criminal proceeding usually begins after a crime report is submitted to the prosecutor's office. For example, a company owner makes a written appeal to the prosecutor's office that a board member is embezzling the company's assets or in other words stealing from the company. The investigator analyzes the information received and, if necessary, also verifies the circumstances themselves. The investigator then decides whether the existing information is sufficient to initiate criminal proceedings. According to § 6 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the decision to initiate criminal proceedings must be based on the principle of in dubio pro duriore, interpreting each suspicion of a crime in favour of initiating criminal proceedings (Supreme Court ruling 3-1-1-60-09, article 9). In reality, the threshold for initiating criminal proceedings is higher for several reasons. For example, the workload of the prosecutor's office is high. Sometimes the victim is directed to a civil court if, for example, the company owner could recover the money from the board member in a civil court.

When to turn to a lawyer?

As a criminal proceeding significantly infringes on a person's fundamental rights, its initiation is not taken lightly. Therefore, many victims hire a lawyer even before the initiation of criminal proceedings to increase the likelihood of initiating criminal proceedings. The lawyer can highlight the necessary circumstances in the criminal complaint to convince the investigator to initiate criminal proceedings. You can always reach out to Lepmets & Nõges lawyers for help with criminal proceedings. 

Initiating criminal proceedings covertly

In the case of some crimes, criminal proceedings are initiated covertly. For example, in drug-related crimes, the suspect may be monitored for a long time to obtain the necessary information and evidence. Investigators may install surveillance devices in cars or buildings, listen to phone calls, and so on. Such covert surveillance can last for a relatively long time, even over a year. The suspect only becomes aware of the criminal proceedings with the first public procedural act, such as a search of their office or being questioned as a suspect. In such a situation, it is necessary to immediately turn to a lawyer because every unnecessary statement or lack of knowledge of one's rights may result in a situation that the lawyer cannot later rectify. By involving a lawyer immediately, it is more likely to obtain a positive outcome in the proceedings.

What to do if there is suspicion of initiating criminal proceedings?

If a person suspects that criminal proceedings may be initiated against them or have already been initiated, it is advisable to immediately turn to a lawyer. This is important, especially for companies. The lawyer can conduct an internal investigation of the company, which can minimize risks and make necessary corrections in operations to avoid later proceedings or a conviction. During the internal investigation, a defense strategy can be developed and the procedural position can be strengthened (read more about internal investigations, for example, here). The lawyers of Lepmets & Nõges Law Firm can provide quality legal assistance in criminal proceedings.


Criminal proceedings out-of-court

Most criminal proceedings are already terminated in the pre-trial stage. The investigator is obliged to conduct an investigation, during which both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence is collected. The prosecutor must decide based on the evidence whether the suspect has committed the offense or not. If the prosecutor finds that the suspect's activity does not meet the criteria for a crime, then the criminal proceedings will be terminated due to lack of grounds. In this case, the suspect's lawyer fees will also be reimbursed.
If, in the prosecutor's view, the suspect has committed the offense, the proceedings will continue. The suspect is presented with the criminal file through their defence counsel. If the suspect confesses to their guilt, it is usually reasonable to make an agreement with the prosecutor. In the plea agreement procedure, the lawyer can negotiate terms that suit the suspect. If it is important for the suspect to receive an acquittal, then the criminal proceedings must be resolved in court. There are several different procedural methods for this, which are described in more detail in the next subsection.
It is also possible to terminate the matter with the principle of opportunity (read more about the opportunity principle here). In short, this is essentially a warning, but the suspect must fulfil certain obligations. It is not a guilty or acquitting decision. No note is made in the criminal record regarding the application of the opportunity principle, so the register remains "clean".

Criminal proceedings in court

In the classic sense, criminal proceedings in court are general proceedings. This is the procedure shown in movies and mostly written about in the media. A long court dispute, during which witnesses are heard, evidence from both sides is examined, and long court speeches are held. Such a procedure is exhausting for both the state and the accused, both in terms of time and money. A good lawyer can greatly influence the outcome of such a process. Solving a criminal case in general proceedings is reasonable, especially in larger and more important criminal proceedings or very fundamental disputes. Otherwise, the financing of the procedure may not be correlated with the outcome.
Other possible court procedures are simplified procedures, the most common of which are abridged and fast-track procedures. In an abridged procedure, witnesses are not heard again in court and no new evidence is presented. The court makes a decision based on the evidence in the criminal case. In the event of a guilty verdict, the sentence is reduced by 1/3. In expedited proceedings, the prosecutor requests the case to be heard within 48 hours. Expedited proceedings require that the circumstances of the evidence are clear and all necessary evidence has been collected. In a plea agreement procedure, the court must also approve the agreement between the prosecutor, the defence counsel, and the suspect. More detailed information on criminal proceedings conducted in court can be found here.

Suspect’s rights

In criminal proceedings, it is important that the suspect is aware of their rights. For this reason, it is advisable to involve a lawyer immediately, who will protect the suspect's interests comprehensively. Firstly, it is important to know that the suspect is not obliged to assist in any way with the investigation or in proving their guilt. This means the right to refuse to give a statement, to disclose any information, addresses, names of persons, etc., the right to refuse to disclose telephone or computer passwords, and so on.
In legal literature, it has been found that if otherwise creating or destroying evidence is a crime, the suspect may have a corresponding right under certain conditions. Therefore, it may be impossible to punish a person for providing incorrect information to the authorities with the aim of not revealing the crime committed by them. In this case, it is advisable to consult a lawyer first, in order not to unwittingly commit a crime or worsen one's procedural position.

Law firms in Estonia: confidentiality of criminal proceedings

It is important for all parties to understand when criminal proceedings are confidential, otherwise a hefty fine may follow due to a simple mistake. Pre-trial criminal proceedings are always confidential, and information about them can only be disclosed with the permission of the prosecutor's office. Suspects are not fined for violating the confidentiality requirement. In the case of court proceedings, the court must decide whether to declare the proceedings closed. In certain cases, this is necessary, such as to protect the rights of a minor victim. The court also has the power to decide to what extent the court proceedings are confidential. After the end of the court proceedings, when the court's decision becomes final, the court acts as an administrative body in charge of the criminal case file, no longer as a court. In this role, the court as an administrative body has the obligation to analyze whether the decision, case file, and other documents of the criminal proceedings are confidential or not. For example, if the court declared the court proceedings closed, this does not automatically mean that after the court's decision becomes final, the criminal case file and other documents are still protected by confidentiality.

Lepmets & Nõges is a quality law firm in Estonia, that is here to help with criminal proceedings.