Chances are that if you are reading this page you are seeking to learn more about the California state criminal justice system and how it works. Below we set out some of the basics of what happens after someone is arrested. This is by no means a thorough overview but we hope it will be a good starting point. Each case is different and requires individual attention.
Following the Arrest
Once someone is arrested a police report is usually generated. This police report typically makes its way to the District Attorney’s office within 24 to 48 hours after the arrest. A deputy district attorney is typically assigned to review police report and file a complaint with the court. In some cases it is possible that a complaint was already filed in Superior Court prior to the arrest. The complaint would contain the criminal charges supported by the facts alleged in the police report. The prosecution of a felony case can also commence by filing a grand jury indictment. If the arrested person remains in custody they are generally arraigned within two days following the arrest. Someone arrested on a weekend or during a holiday may have to wait an extra day to be arraigned.
The Arraignment is generally the first court appearance in a criminal case. At the arraignment the judge will informed the accused of the criminal charges brought against him or her in the complaint or indictment and will inquire whether the accused can hire a defense attorney. If the accused cannot afford to hire a defense lawyer of their choosing, the judge will typically assign the case to the public defender’s office. In some counties the court will require that the defendant enter a plea at the arraignment while in other counties the court will only require the entry of a plea if the case resolves or is set for a preliminary hearing.
Immediately upon arrest bail must be set according to a local bail schedule. If certain factors are present, the arresting officer can request that the bail amount be set at an amount greater than the one specified in the bail schedule. In less serious cases the local jail will often release people without bail. If bail is set at an excessively high amount, a criminal defense attorney can request that the bail be reduced. Generally, following a two day notice, a criminal defense lawyer can request a bail hearing. A bail hearing is hearing before the judge where the defense attorney lays out factors that the judge can and should consider in lowering bail or releasing the client on his or her own recognizance, without requiring a bail amount. A judge’s main concerns that must be addressed are: (1) the likelihood that the defendant will return to court, and (2) the potential danger that the defendant poses to people and property if released. The criminal defense attorney in the case is in the best position to decide when and if to bring a bail motion.
Settlement Conference or Pre-Trial Conference
Following the arraignment, the next hearing is generally a settlement conference or pre-trial hearing. Depending on the case and county this may be the first opportunity for a defense attorney to discuss the case with the judge and the assigned prosecutor. Also depending on the case and the accused’ custody status, it may or may not be beneficial to have two or more settlement conferences before proceeding further. If the case cannot be resolved in a way that is satisfactory to the accused, a misdemeanor case will proceed to trial while a felony case will proceed to a preliminary hearing.
Misdemeanor Jury Trial
A case involving one or more misdemeanor charges without any felony charges will be treated differently by the courts than a felony case. The accused in a misdemeanor case has the right to a jury trial within 45 days of requesting one if the accused is out of custody and within 30 days of requesting one if the accused remained in custody. In a felony case however, a case without a grand jury indictment will proceed to a preliminary hearing in front of a judge before it can proceed to a jury trial. In most other respects a misdemeanor jury trial follows the same format as a felony jury trial. While both misdemeanor and felony jury trial can be complex and require thorough preparation, felony jury trials tend to require more extensive preparation.
In the absence of a grand jury indictment, the preliminary hearing is often one of the first evidentiary hearings in the case. At a preliminary hearing, the prosecution must bring forth enough evidence to convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed by the defendant. If this low standard of evidence is met, the judge will hold the defendant to answer to the charges and the case will proceed to trial. The preliminary hearing is one of the first opportunities for the defense to show the prosecutor why a case should be dismissed or settled for a just result. It also allows the defense to show the judge why a case should be dismissed or reduced. It is not common for a defendant to testify at the preliminary hearing as this would give the prosecutor a shot at cross examination before the trial.
Felony Jury Trial
While there may be much more litigation following the preliminary hearing, the next major event is generally the felony jury trial. At the time of a felony jury trial the attorneys will generally file “Motions in Limine” requesting that the judge rule on certain legal issues before the trial commences. This allows the attorneys to plan a trial roadmap and know what the judge will and will not allow during the trial. Following the rulings on the motions, a jury is generally selected. The selection process and style differs from courtroom to courtroom however certain rules remain the same. The judge will generally question a large group of potential jurors and excuse anyone who cannot serve due to a legally recognized reason. The defense attorney and the prosecutor then have a chance to ask questions of the remaining potential jurors and exercise a number of preemptory challenges, excusing jurors for any non-discriminatory reason. Following the selection of the jury, the judge will permit both sides to present an opening statement. An opening statement is not evidence but the attorneys will have a chance to address the jury and lay out what they believe the evidence will show. The defense attorney has the option of postponing the opening statement until the conclusion of the government’s case. Following opening statements, the evidence portion of the trial begins. Evidence in the form of testimony as well as physical evidence may be introduced according to the California Rules of Evidence. The prosecutor will present the government’s case first after which the defense will have an opportunity to present evidence. The defense does not have to present any evidence and may instead rely on the prosecutor’s failure to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Following the evidence phase, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor will have a chance to present a closing argument. The prosecutor presents the government’s closing argument first followed by the defense closing argument. Because they hold the burden of proof, the government is allowed to have a rebuttal argument following the defense closing argument. Following the closing argument the judge will typically instruct the jury as to the law, swear in the bailiff to protect the jury and allow the jurors to begin deliberations.
While there so much more that is involved in the criminal justice process, we hope that the quick overview provides a starting point to understanding California’s complex justice system. If you find yourself or a loved one involved in the criminal court process give us a call for a consultation. The right criminal defense attorneys can guide you and fight to obtain the best possible outcome for your case. Call our office today at (415)946-4020.