Any criminal case in California starts with an arrest. Once the accused is placed under arrest, various rights are triggered. The first right is for the defendant to know what he or she has been charged with.
In an arraignment, the presiding judge formally advises the defendant of what he or she has been charged with and what a conviction of the crime is punishable by. Nearly all defendants enter a plea of not guilty. The judge then schedules various dates and deadlines, including a date for a pretrial conference and a trial date. If the defendant hasn’t yet posted a bail bond, he or she might ask for a reduction at time of arraignment. It’s highly unusual, but if the defendant enters a plea of guilty or no contest at an arraignment, the case will immediately proceed to sentencing. We strongly advise against proceeding in this fashion.
The pretrial process in California misdemeanor cases
A misdemeanor involves any crime that is punishable by less than a year in a county jail. The term “pretrial” references all proceedings in a misdemeanor criminal case before a trial on the merits of a case. These ordinarily consist of:
- Motions like quashing an arrest and suppressing evidence
- The exchange of information known as discovery that tends to prove or disprove the defendant’s guilt
- Plea negotiations for the court to consider and enter
The overwhelming majority of all criminal cases in California are disposed of in the pretrial stage.
Felony preliminary hearings
A felony is described as a crime or moral turpitude that’s punishable by a year and a day or more in a California state prison. A preliminary hearing operates as a probable cause hearing. First, the presiding judge determines whether there was probable cause to believe that a crime was committed. Then he or she decides whether there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed that crime. Should both issues be answered affirmatively, the judge presiding over the preliminary hearing transfers the case over to the trial court division for further proceedings. Sometimes preliminary hearings are waived by the defendant.
There are two types of trials. In a bench trial, a trial court judge hears all of the evidence and decides whether the defendant is guilty or innocent of the crime charged. In a jury trial, 12 people will decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. In either case, the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has a right to a jury trial, but he or she can waive that right and ask for a bench trial.
The six stages of a jury trial
To protect the defendant’s right to due process of law in both misdemeanor and felony cases, jury trials consist of six stages. Those are:
- Selection of the jury
- Opening statements by the prosecution and the defense
- Presentation of the prosecution’s evidence and the defendant’s evidence
- Closing arguments by the prosecution and the defense
- Jury deliberations
- The verdict
If the defendant is found not guilty, he or she is released. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the case will proceed to sentencing. In either case, the judge discharges the jury and thanks them for their service.
The sentencing hearing
In a misdemeanor case, a judge might sentence the defendant then and there. In a felony case, the matter is ordinarily continued for a presentencing investigation and a sentencing hearing. At that hearing, both aggravating and mitigating evidence and arguments will be considered by the judge, and he or she will sentence the defendant in accordance with the applicable sentencing statute.
No matter what they promise you, never give the police a statement of any kind after an arrest. Exercise your right to remain silent along with your right to an attorney, and call us right away. Remember that the prosecution must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There are defenses and alternatives available to you, so contact us as soon as possible after any arrest.