California Criminal Court Process
The criminal court process is daunting, especially if it’s your first time. However, you can rest assured you are in good hands with a confident criminal defense lawyer knowledgeable of local Bay Area courts.
Every California criminal process begins with an investigation. Police can either:
- Suspect a person of criminal activity after opening up an investigation, or
- Witness someone allegedly commit a crime and then arrest them.
The police investigation can involve interviewing witnesses, executing search warrants, and reaching out to any persons of interest to question them.
You Have a Right to Remain Silent
You need to exercise your right to remain silent if police reach out to you with questions about a potential crime. Even though you may be innocent and believe that working with police could help resolve matters, anything you say can be used against you at trial.
Your Lawyer Could Help Drop Your Investigation
Your criminal defense lawyer can show there is insufficient evidence to proceed with the criminal investigation against you. Getting them involved early can go a long way in achieving a desirable outcome in your case.
Once police determine you are the subject of their investigation and have sufficient evidence to move forward, they will arrest you. Once arrested, you will be booked.
The Booking Process
The booking process occurs when you’re taken to the police station. Here, you can expect:
- To have your fingerprints taken
- For notes to be taken about the facts of your case
- Police to do a search of your criminal background
- Law enforcement to record your personal information, including your name, aliases, address, and identifying information
After booking, you’ll either be held in custody until arraignment or released on your own recognizance (ROR).
Your arraignment is where you will first appear in court following your arrest. The police and the prosecutor must arraign you within 48 hours of your arrest. This does not include holidays or weekends. If you were released from custody following your arrest, arraignment will take place within weeks or months.
Entering Your Plea
Arraignment occurs before a judge and the court reads you the charges that the state’s prosecutor has filed against you. Here, you will enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere, or no contest.
Your next steps could look different depending on your plea:
- Not Guilty – The judge will then address the issue of bail
- Guilty – You will move forward to a sentencing hearing
The Judge May Order a Preliminary Hearing
The judge may order a preliminary hearing where the prosecutor submits evidence related to the crime you’re charged with. The judge will determine whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed.
Further, they will determine if there is enough cause to believe you are the individual who committed the crime in question.
If probable cause exists, you can move forward to a second arraignment or the pre-trial process. However, if the judge does not find probable cause in your case, the charges against you can be dismissed.
The pre-trial process in California includes the time following your arraignment through the start of your trial. The pre-trial process is where your lawyer may be able to work with the state to obtain a plea agreement or get the charges against you dismissed. In some cases, your attorney might be able to negotiate for an alternative sentence to avoid the harsh penalties of a conviction.
Duration & Proceedings Involved
The pre-trial process can last anywhere from days to months or longer, depending on the details of your case. The proceedings that may take place as part of the pre-trial process include:
- Court appearances
- Discovery (the exchange of information between the defense and the prosecutor)
- Motion practice, including motions to suppress evidence, Pitchess motions, and other requests by the prosecutor or the defense for the judge to take action in your case
- Plea negotiations
You must move forward to trial when your case isn’t resolved during pretrial proceedings. There are two types of trials under California law: bench trials and jury trials.
Bench Trials & Jury Trials
The judge will act as both your judge and jury in a bench trial. In a jury trial, members of the community hear the evidence against you to determine whether you should be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. You can expect the following from your jury trial process:
- Jury selection
- Both the prosecution and defense make opening statements
- Both the prosecution and defense present evidence
- Both the prosecution and defense make closing arguments
- The jury reviews the evidence and deliberates
- If convicted, your case will move forward to sentencing
A not-guilty verdict will result in your release from jail or prison to go home to your family.
A guilty verdict results in your sentencing. At your sentencing hearing, the prosecutor and the defense will both have the opportunity to argue what an appropriate sentence might be for your case.
Mitigating Factors Could Help Reduce Your Sentence
Your attorney must present any mitigating circumstances that could help reduce your sentence, including paying restitution to any victims, the fact that you struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, or the fact you committed a crime out of necessity.
Aggravating Factors Could Increase Your Sentence
Alternatively, the prosecutor will argue that aggravating factors exist to increase your sentence. Such aggravating factors could include the involvement of a child, the use of a firearm or deadly weapon, lack of remorse, or a substantial criminal background.
Misdemeanor convictions result in spending time in county jail and paying fines. Felony convictions result in spending time in state prison and paying fines. You may also need to complete other court-ordered requirements such as counseling, substance abuse treatment, anger management, or community service.
After sentencing, you could appeal your connection with a higher court. An appeal isn’t a new trial. When your case is up for appeal, an appellate judge will review the trial court’s initial decision. An appellate court will only overturn the trial court’s decision when they find:
- Prosecutorial misconduct
- Insufficient evidence
- Judicial misconduct
- Jury misconduct
- Ineffective legal counsel
The appellate court has the authority to either:
- Completely overturn the trial court’s verdict and demand new proceedings, or
- Affirm the trial court’s initial verdict in your case
Go Through This Process with a Criminal Defense Lawyer
The California criminal court process can be complex. Get the answers you need and an assertive legal advocate when you contact Attorney Seth Morris to take on your case.