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Criminal Court Process in California


A lot of people that haven’t been charged with a crime in California wonder what is the criminal procedure is all about?  How does it work?  Am I looking at jail time?  Am I going to have a record for the rest of my life?  How is this going to impact me, my family, my future and my career?

These are all great questions; but it’s scary, because when somebody gets arrested they lose control.  They don’t know what’s going to happen and they’re looking for answers.Criminal Court Process in California

This section is meant to give you some of those answers.  Obviously, your first move if you can, is to hire a local seasoned California criminal defense attorney who knows the courthouse where your case is pending because they will be able to guide you through the process.

They will be able to tell you in advance exactly what’s going to happen; what you should be concerned about; what you can do to help them.  When I meet with clients we go over the whole case from beginning to end.  I give client’s an idea of what they’re facing.

We talk about their case.  Of course, I’m looking for an honest account of what happened so that I can give them an accurate honest account of what they’re looking at.

Criminal Investigation or On-Scene Arrest and Bail

The first thing is that the police will either investigate you and then ultimately take the case to the prosecutors and see if they are going to file a case against you.  If they do, the police can arrest you, issue you a warrant or send you out a letter to appear in court.

Another way that it happens is, somebody commits a crime, the police are called out or the police see it or a witness sees it and they just come out and arrest that person.  Then that person will be in custody.  Typically, they’ll have a bail put on them.  For example, in a domestic violence case, they’re usually putting a $50,000 bail on somebody.  So that person either bails out or they’ll be in court within 72 hours of being arrested.

The worst though is when you get arrested on the weekend or a holiday.  That can cause you to be in custody for longer than 72 hours if you don’t bail out.  If you bail out, use a bail bondsman or you post the money yourself, you’ll usually get out pretty quickly.  You just have to wait until the police book you.  Once they book you then you are fair game to be bailed out.  Your family can bail you out or you can bail yourself out.

If you can’t bail out or don’t bail out, then you’ll appear in court within a day or two.  The judge will set the bail at that tie.  Your attorney can argument that you’d be released on your own recognizance, which basically means you get released with your promise to appear.

That doesn’t cost you or your family any money.  You are out while the case is pending.  You can defend yourself and you can deal with your attorney noting having to be in custody, which is not easy.

Arraignment and Negotiation with Prosecutor

Once bail is dealt with, then you’re going to appear for the arraignment.  Typically, attorneys will have you enter a not guilty plea and then your case will be set for another court date.

Your attorney will get all of the paperwork and evidence related to your case depending on exactly what information is available, and usually what the prosecutors are handing over to the defense attorney is what they think they’re going to be able to use to find you guilty of the crime, your attorney can review it with you.

Your attorney, of course, can have an investigator and do any investigator do any investigation they want based on the facts and circumstances of your case.  You and your attorney will ultimately meet to discuss your case.

I like to get the client all o the paperwork related to the case so they can review.  Then we can really have a fruitful discussion about what the prosecution has; what kind of defense we might be able to mount;; and whether or not it’s a case where we’re going

Once we do that, if it is going to be something that’s going to be plead bargained and we’re going to be negotiating with the prosecutors, I’ll have you get some character letters together — something from your job; something from your significant other; anybody that knows you, loves you and can speak highly of your — we’re going to get something from them so that we can show that you’re a good upstanding person and try to get you the best resolution possible.

If we’re able to work out a deal then we’ll be presented in front of a judge.  You will change your plea from not-guilty to either no-contest or guilty and then the judge will sentence you and usually you’ll know what the sentence is in advance because it will be worked out and the judge will basically just be putting his or her blessing on it.

Then the case will probably be set for a progress report to see how you’re doing with everything you were ordered to do.  You’ll be on probation and that will be the end of your case.

You’ll be on probation for usually three to five years.  Once probation is over, if you worked out an appropriate deal, then you should be able to get your matter either reduced to a misdemeanor if you pled to a felony and/or you should be able to get it expunged, which basically is a dismissal of your case.

Jury Trial

If you take the other route and you fight the case, then obviously you would appear in front of a jury.  Jury instructions will be given to the jury depending on what your charges were.  The prosecutors, because they have the burden, would put on the evidence on behalf of the government and the jury would obviously decide whether you’re innocent or guilty.  Your defense attorney will get to cross-examine all of the witnesses.

Once the government is done with their case, the defense has an absolute right to put on a case if they choose, or they can rest on the state of the evidence if the defense does not believe that the prosecutors have presented enough evidence to find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Remember, there is a presumption of innocence and that means, unless the prosecutors can prove that you did what they’re claiming you did, the jury has to find you not guilty.

If you’re found not guilty you’re done; if you’re found guilty, then obviously the judge will have an opportunity to sentence you without you having the benefit of having worked out a plea agreement.

So, as you can see I’ve said a mouthful here, but the bottom line is, your first move should be to hire somebody like me who has been a criminal defense attorney for twenty-five years.

So, pick up the phone.  Give me a call.  We’ll get this thing moving in the right direction so you can end up with the best resolution and get out of the criminal justice system as fast as possible.

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About the Author

Named Top Los Angeles Criminal Attorney by LA Times and named one of the Top 100 criminal defense attorneys in California by the National Trial Lawyers Association. I'm the attorney other lawyers hire to defend them.