The criminal law process is difficult and changes based on outcomes. Our 2022 Guide will help you navigate the pitfalls and set expectations.
Table of Contents
What Happens in a Criminal Case in California?
For those unfamiliar with how the court system in California works, the entire process can be overwhelming. Below, we outline a brief summary of each of the steps that a defendant may encounter if they are identified in connection to a crime.
Arrest or Citation of Suspect
When a crime occurs, law enforcement is called in to investigate and find suspects. Depending on the nature of the crime, a suspect might be issued a citation, arrested, or detained in jail until charges can be filed by the District Attorney. If possible, the suspect may be given the option of posting bail and being released with the understanding that they will be obligated to appear in court at a later date.
Police Reports, Investigation, and Recommendations
After an incident in which a suspect is arrested, jailed, or cited, law enforcement is required to write up a detailed report of what happened and document the findings of their investigation. The report is a record of the evidence gathered that leads them to believe that the suspect in question was involved in the crime.
A recommendation for charges to be filed may also be included and presented to the District Attorney who will ultimately be prosecuting the case if it goes to a trial.
District Attorney’s Office Reviews the Case
The police report is then handed over to the District Attorney’s office for review. The Deputy District Attorney (DDA) is responsible for reviewing the report and deciding if criminal charges should be filed. It is at their discretion to file the charges recommended by law enforcement in the report.
Alternatively, the Deputy District Attorney can decide to only pursue some of the charges, none at all, or if the evidence supports additional charges can be added. More investigations may be conducted before the case is filed.
The DA Decides Whether to File and What Type of Charges
After a review of the case, it is possible that no charges are filed. In this case the person of interest will be released if they had been in custody.
If a case is pursued, the DA will classify the crime as an infraction (which will result in a fine), misdemeanor (punishable by up to a year in the county jail), or felony (the most serious classification given to a crime with the potential for incarceration in a state prison.) If a charge is filed, the next step in the process is the arraignment.
The arraignment is the initial court appearance a defendant makes in a criminal case. Here, the judge will inform the defendant what charges are being filed against them and, in turn, the defendant will have a chance to enter their plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A Deputy District Attorney will be present to represent the people of the state of California.
If the defendant is currently in custody, the judge may set bail or grant release on the defendant’s ‘own recognizance’ with a promise to appear in the court for future dates. Whether the judge sets bail is determined by the risks involved with the defendant. If they are a flight risk, have been charged with a serious crime or have a prior criminal record, these can all factor into whether bail is set and at what amount.
The next steps in the criminal court process differ slightly depending on if the defendant is being charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
What Happens in a Misdemeanor Criminal Case?
After the Arraignment
During the arraignment, if a plea of not guilty is submitted the case will then proceed to trial. The defendant will either already have legal representation at this point, or the court will appoint counsel if they cannot afford their own attorney. At trial, the burden is on the prosecutor (the Office of the District Attorney) to prove guilt. The defendant is not obligated to provide evidence of innocence during the trial.
Discovery and Plea Bargaining
In the pre-trial phase the process of ‘discovery’ occurs where the prosecution and defense exchange information such as police reports, evidence, and witness statements.
This is also the time where other possible resolutions could be discussed. In a plea bargain, a defendant may agree to waive their right to trial in an effort to resolve the case and obtain certainty of an outcome or punishment. If a valid plea bargain is not reached, the case will then proceed to trial.
Ruling and Sentencing
At trial there is an option of having a judge rather than jury make the final decision. If found guilty, the judge also sentences the defendant with a punishment appropriate for the crime. This might include probation, jail time, and specific conditions such as attendance of counseling programs or anger management.
What Happens in a Felony Criminal Case?
After the Arraignment
If a plea of not guilty is submitted the case will then proceed to a preliminary hearing. The defendant has the right to this hearing within 10 court days or 60 calendar days of this first appearance at the arraignment.
This right can also be waived if the defendant chooses. The defendant will either already have legal representation at this point, or the court will appoint counsel if they cannot afford their own attorney.
At the preliminary hearing the prosecution will present evidence showing the defendant committed the crimes for which they are charged. While there is burden of proof required by the prosecution at this stage, the expectation of reasonable doubt is not necessary.
If the judge is satisfied that there is enough evidence to go to trial, the defendant will be ‘held to answer’ and a jury trial will be scheduled.
Discovery and Plea Bargaining
In the pre-trial phase (similar to the process for misdemeanor cases) the process of ‘discovery’ occurs where the prosecution and defense exchange information such as police reports, evidence, and witness statements. Other possible resolutions could also be discussed. In a plea bargain, a defendant may agree to waive their right to trial in an effort to resolve the case and obtain certainty of an outcome or punishment. If a valid plea bargain is not reached, the case will then proceed to trial.
Trial and Sentencing
Felony cases are normally conducted in front a jury who will decide whether guilt has been proven based on the prosecution’s presentation. At trial, the burden is on the prosecutor (the Office of the District Attorney) to prove guilt. The defendant is not obligated to provide evidence of innocence during the trial. The trial will consist of opening statements, witness testimony and questioning, presentation of evidence, and closing statements. The jury will then deliberate the case and reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty. If found not guilty, the case ends. A guilty verdict will then lead to a sentencing trial usually set several weeks later. The judge will review the information presented during trial as well as other reports provided by the probation department.
Sentencing outcomes can include probation, time served at a county jail or even state prison. From the sentencing, there may be options for appeals depending on the case.