Going through the legal process when you’re facing criminal charges can feel overwhelming. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand what to expect at every stage of the process. We have practiced criminal defense throughout California, handling cases in the early investigation stages through resolving your case. You should not be expected to know the ins and outs of the criminal justice system on your own. But with the right attorney on your side, you will understand each stage. And then, you will be able to make decisions about your case with guidance from someone who deals with this every day.
Investigation and Criminal Charges
The first step in the criminal justice process is the investigation. Before charges are filed with the court, law enforcement officers investigate a reported crime. This often involves getting statements from witnesses, and from suspects. You can read more about interrogations and your right to remain silent here.
After law enforcement does their investigation they will write a report, and then they send the report to the prosecutor’s office. That may be the county district attorney’s office or the city attorney’s office depending on where the alleged crime took place.
Once the reports are received by the prosecutor’s office, they will be assigned a prosecuting attorney to review. The prosecutor will determine whether they believe they have enough evidence to prosecute you for a crime based on these reports. If they believe they have enough, they will officially file charges with the court. If they think they do not have enough evidence, they may choose not to file charges. However, they may also ask law enforcement for more information, and sometimes law enforcement will do more investigation to gather more evidence.
Arraignment is the first court date in the court process. At this hearing, the court formally advised you of your charges – specifically what criminal charges you are facing. This is also when your attorney becomes the “attorney of record.”
A number of things happen at this first appearance. The court may order special terms of your release while your case is pending (own recognizance release, also known as “OR” release). For example, if you are facing a DUI charge, the court may require you to attend a certain number of AA meetings per week while your case is pending. If you fail to comply, the court could put you into custody while your case is pending. Alternatively, they can set bail in your case.
Different counties will allow arraignments to continue multiple times as an opportunity to work to negotiate a favorable outcome. In other counties, this might involve entering a not-guilty plea and schedule the case for a pre-trial conference or settlement conference. This is another opportunity to work on a favorable outcome.
Multiple parties are involved in negotiation. Many of my clients initially believe the judge makes all the decisions. However, more often we are able to negotiate a resolution directly with the prosecutor.
The prosecutor is the one that filed the criminal charges. They decide which charges to filed, and which to dismissed prior to trial. I will often start by speaking with the prosecutor. This is because they can drop charges or change the criminal charges you are facing when appropriate for a favorable outcome.
If the prosecutor and I are unable to reach a resolution, we can discuss the case with the judge. The judge can give an indicated sentence. The court bases this sentence on all of the charges filed against you. To take advantage of the courts indicated sentence, you will have to “plead to the sheet.” This means that you enter a plea to every charge filed against you. You may get a better resolution this way if the prosecutor is not willing to negotiate.
Preliminary Hearing (Felony Cases Only)
If the case does not resolve at this point in the criminal court process, a felony case will proceed to a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, the prosecution presents their evidence to the judge. The judge decides only whether there is enough evidence to continue with the criminal charges. The judge may decide that there is only enough evidence for some, but not all the charges. Alternatively, if there is not enough evidence, the judge could dismiss all the criminal charges you are facing.
At a preliminary hearing, you have many of the same rights as you would at trial. These include the rights to confront and cross examine witnesses, to remain silent, and to present a defense. While you have these rights, you should discuss what is in your best interest at this stage. Your attorney may suggest using the preliminary hearing to preview the prosecutor’s case without making statements that may be used against you later at trial.
After a preliminary hearing, you the court will arraign you on the charges again. The prosecutor will file a new document, called an information. This document lists the charges the judge has decided to proceed with. Depending on the result of the preliminary hearing, you may be in a better position to continue negotiating. But sometimes, your position can get worse.
If you are unable to resolve your case during these stages, your attorney may want to file motions. The type of motion to file depends on the specific circumstances of your case. These motions include ones to suppress evidence, to compel evidence, or to dismiss charges. The outcome of these motions may again provide an opportunity to negotiate your case.
When a resolution isn’t possible, the next step in the criminal justice system is to schedule your case for trial. During trial, the prosecutor has to prove each element of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor will do this by calling witnesses to testify. You have the right to confront and cross examine all the witnesses against you. After each witness is questioned by the prosecutor, your attorney will have an opportunity to ask them questions as well.
After all the prosecutor’s witnesses have been called, your attorney can call witnesses to support you. You also have a right to present evidence. This means that you can use the court’s subpoena powers to bring any witnesses or evidence to court to support your case. After your attorney questions your witnesses, the prosecutor will also have a chance to cross examine them.
As part of your defense, you may choose to testify. You do have a right to remain silent. If you choose to remain silent, the jury is not allowed to consider your silence as evidence against you.
If you are found guilty at trial or if you enter a change of plea, you will then be sentenced. The judge will sentence you based on mitigating and aggravating factors. If you entered your change of plea as a result of a negotiated deal, the judge would sentence you according to that deal.
While it is rare, if a judge disagrees with the negotiated sentence, you have the option to withdraw your plea, and continue with negotiation or fight your case at trial.
If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, we are here to help. We know it can be a stressful time, especially when you don’t know what to expect. We want to provide you with the information and guidance you need to make informed decisions about your case throughout the legal process.