What happens when you are facing a criminal charge in California? The process can be very different depending on the severity of the crime. It depends on whether is is a misdemeanor or felony charge, and a host of other factors. Some local and regional criminal courts in California may have slightly different procedures, but what follows is a basic outline of what you can expect.
But no matter what, I know you are under a lot of pressure and stress about what can happen to you. Being caught up in the California criminal courts is an extremely scary time in your life. You are facing charges that could affect your reputation, your freedom, and your future. Add to that the confusing nature of the criminal court process, and you may feel like this is one of the hardest periods of your life.
One key to confidence during this trying time is knowledge. Knowing how your case progresses and the potential outcomes can take away a lot of the nervous uncertainty.
So if you are accused of a criminal offense in California, we want to help.
- We offer a thorough case evaluation and consultation on the charges against you
- We will answer the questions you have about your case, and what you can expect in court.
- We will give you some possible defense strategies, and how you might be able to beat the case.
- We will let you know the likely range of possible outcomes if you are found guilty in a trial or decide to work out a plea deal.
- We will let you know exactly what we think we can do to help, and what our legal representation will cost you.
And we’ll do all this for free, as part of our initial legal consultation.
We hope this criminal court procedure information is helpful to you. Know that having an experienced criminal attorney on your side will improve your understanding of your specific case, and exactly what you can expect. We can also provide hope that you can fight your criminal charges and win.
It is vital in the criminal process that you retain a qualified attorney as soon as possible, even if it isn’t us. It makes sense to take advantage of our free criminal case evaluation for any criminal charge in California. The earlier in the process that you hire an attorney, the better chance you will have at beating your charges or getting them reduced.
California Criminal Court Process
The criminal court process in California differs from person to person and case to case. In a system as large as the state of California, it is easy to see how someone could be confused by the complexity of the courts. However, the majority of cases loosely follow the same stages.
Arraignment/ First Appearance
Both felony and misdemeanor cases begin with an arraignment or first appearance in the lower courts. The first appearance must happen within 24 hours of your arrest. This is where you will be informed of the charges against you and made aware of some of your rights. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, this will be your first opportunity to tell the judge how you plan to plea (guilty, not guilty, no contest).
If you plead guilty at a misdemeanor arraignment, the judge may sentence you on the spot.
Also at your first appearance, the judge may set bail. This is entirely up the judge and the statutes that govern the charges you face. Some very serious crimes are not eligible for bail. Otherwise, the judge will take your situation and the circumstances of your offense into consideration when determining if you can be released pending further court proceedings.
Bail is simply an amount of money that a defendant puts up as a promise to return for future court dates. The judge will take into consideration both the severity of your crime and your stability within the community.
Before setting bail, a judge wants to ensure that:
1. You are not a risk to the community, and
2. You are not a “flight risk” (you will return).
There are a few different release options the judge may consider in your case.
Own Recognizance- If a judge releases you on your own recognizance (O.R. bond) she is trusting that you will return and not requiring you to put forth any money.
Cash Bail- A judge may require that you pay the entire bail amount in order to be released.
Surety Bond- Only a portion of the bail is required in a surety bond. Often times a bailbondsmen will promise the court that they will be responsible for the remainder of the bail if you fail to appear.
Pre-Trial Misdemeanor Proceedings
Following the arraignment and entering a plea of not guilty or no contest, a pretrial conference may be held between the defense and the prosecution. The pretrial conference will most likely include discussions about plea bargains and pre-trial motions.
Pre-Trial Felony Proceedings
Preliminary Examination or Hearing
All defendants charged with a felony in California are entitled to a preliminary hearing. This is where the prosecution shows the court that they have enough evidence to go to trial. It is very similar in format to a trial; however your guilt or innocence does not have to be proven at this stage.
Your right to a preliminary hearing can be waived. Anytime you wish to waive a constitutional right, you should be certain of your decision. Conferring with an experienced attorney ensures your decision is well informed.
If the preliminary hearing finds sufficient probable cause, your case will be “bound over” to Superior Court for felony arraignment.
Felony Superior Court Arraignment
If you are charged with a felony, you will face arraignment at the Superior Court level. This is where you will have the opportunity to enter your plea. Your bail may also be reviewed at this stage. Your attorney can also petition the court to lower your bail.
Prior to trial, whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, the prosecution will most likely offer you a plea “deal”. Because the majority of criminal cases in the country end in plea bargains, it is important to understand what exactly they are.
The prosecution for the State of California wants you to either admit to certain elements (or all elements) of your offense, or they want you to be found guilty. A plea bargain ensures they get the guilty plea they are looking for.
In exchange for your guilty plea, the prosecutor may offer a reduction in your charges, a lower sentencing recommendation, or both. Entering a guilty plea will forever mark your record. However, in some situations a plea is the best option.
It is vital that you have an experienced attorney to consult when considering plea agreements offered by the prosecution.
The period of time between the arraignment and trial in a felony case can last a long time. Attorneys for both sides may enter motions to continue the case if they need more time to prepare. They may also make evidentiary motions to ask the court to rule on evidence prior to the trial.
Typically, no matter the charges you are facing, your trial will follow a set guideline. There are certain steps that each trial goes through. Some trials may last a few hours, while others can drag on for weeks. An experienced attorney can help set your expectations about trial.
1. Opening Statements: This is where the attorneys introduce the case to the judge and jurors.
2. Presentation of Evidence: This stage of the trial can be the longest. It is during the presentation of evidence that the prosecution attempts to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you committed the crime you are charged with.
The prosecution and defense take turns both in presenting evidence and questioning witnesses.
3. Closing Arguments: Closing arguments are the last opportunity each side will have to address the jury and judge.
4. Judge’s Instructions to the Jury
5. Jury Deliberations: The jury will retire to private chambers to decide your fate. A jury’s decision must be unanimous.
6. Verdict: Once the jury has reached a decision, the judge will enter a verdict. If you have been found guilty, the judge may sentence you that day but will most likely set sentencing for a future date.