The criminal justice system is exactly that: a system. It is a process that is supposed to ensure the accused gets a chance to defend themselves. In practice, it is far more complicated and can be problematic, even for the wrongly accused.
Knowing how the California criminal court process works can help you understand the big picture of what you are about to go through if you have just been arrested. It can also show you how important it is to have a skilled criminal defense attorney at your side throughout the process.
The criminal justice system can be involved in your case even before you are aware of it, especially for crimes like fraud. These cases may go through an extensive investigation, which can last for weeks, months or even years before police think they have enough evidence to make an arrest. Other cases, like driving under the influence (DUI), only take moments of investigation.
A criminal investigation frequently ends in the suspect’s arrest. However, some serious crimes require a formal indictment, which may have to go through a grand jury before an arrest warrant will be issued.
After an arrest, you will generally be brought to the local jail. There, you will be booked. Police will record your personal information, like your name, address and the details of your arrest. For lesser offenses, you could be released after booking on your own recognizance — that is, after promising to appear at your next court appearance. If you have a defense attorney with you at this point, it can drastically reduce the stress of being in an unfamiliar situation.
The arraignment is your next court appearance. There, you will hear the charges being filed against you and will enter your plea. In California, you can plead either guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere, which means no contest and has much the same effect as a guilty plea.
Pleading guilty or nolo contendere skips the bulk of the court process and proceeds right to sentencing. Pleading not guilty, on the other hand, forces the prosecutor to prove the case against you. Having a criminal defense attorney present at this juncture can help you avoid making a mistake that will leave you with a permanent criminal record.
At your arraignment, the judge will address the issue of bail. This is the amount of money you will have to put up if you do not want to stay in jail until your trial. The amount of bail depends on the seriousness of the crime and whether you are a flight risk and frequently abides by your county’s bail schedule. A skilled criminal defense attorney, however, can help reduce bail by arguing on your behalf.
Most criminal cases in California are resolved well before trial, through the pretrial and negotiation process. This is where you, your criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor gather evidence, make motions and consider plea deals. Among the things that can happen during the pretrial process are:
If no resolution is made during the pretrial process, your case will go to trial. Occasionally, your best option will be a bench trial, where the judge will also act as the jury. More often, it will be a jury trial. These have numerous stages, many of which are shown in the many courtroom dramas you can watch on TV:
If the jury’s verdict is guilty, then the case will proceed to a sentencing hearing. This is where the prosecutor will try to convince the judge to issue a heavy sentence, while your defense attorney gives all the reasons for a light one.
Throughout this process, issues can arise that call for a higher court to resolve. These are appeals and can make a huge difference in your case if they are pursued vigorously.