Understanding the Criminal Process in California
Explained by Ese Omofoma, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer
The criminal process in California can be confusing and will likely differ from person to person. However, most cases follow the same process described below:Citation/Arrest
If a police officer has probable cause that you have committed a crime, they will likely do one of two things:
- Arrest you and take you to jail, or
- Write you a citation with a date to appear in court, at a later time
This will be your first appearance in court. Here, you will be advised of the charges against you and your constitutional rights. The court will then ask you to enter a plea to the charges of “guilty” or “not guilty”. If you plead guilty your case will move to sentencing. Most attorneys will advise their clients to plead not guilty in order to allow time to obtain and review evidence and develop a strategy for your case.Bail
Bail is the amount of money that a defendant puts up as a promise to return for all future court dates. The judge will take into consideration both the severity of your crime and your ties to the community in determining how much to set bail, if at all.
Before setting bail, a judge wants to ensure that:
- You are not a danger to the community, and
- You are not a “flight risk” (you won’t skip town and never return)
Note: The judge may release you on your own recognizance (O.R.) meaning that they trust you will attend all your court dates, without requiring you to post bail.Pre-Trial Hearing
If you are charged with a misdemeanor, the court will set a pre-trial hearing date at your arraignment. The purpose of the pre-trial hearing is to allow your attorney to discuss your case with the prosecutor and judge, to see if a settlement can be reached. The pre-trial hearing also allows your attorney to make legal motions and ensure he or she is obtaining all requested evidence from the prosecutor.
It is not uncommon to have multiple pre-trial hearings throughout the duration of your case.Preliminary Hearing (Felony Charges Only)
In felony matters, the court will set a preliminary hearing date at your arraignment. At the preliminary hearing the prosecutor has to present evidence that shows probable cause that you are the person that committed the crime. Note, that this is a much lower standard then the prosecutor will have to prove at trial (beyond a reasonable doubt). It is not uncommon for the prosecutor to meet their lower burden at preliminary hearings.
If the judge decides there is enough evidence for you to “answer” to the charges he or she may set a new arraignment in the trial court where your case will take place, in the event of a trial. After the new arraignment, your case will be set for pre-trial, for the purposes described above.Trial
If your case has not been dismissed or settled, you will then proceed to trial. Most cases that go to trial are before a 12-member jury comprised from the community, from which you live. The jury will listen to and review all of the evidence and determine if you are guilty or not guilty of the charges.Sentencing
You will be sentenced in your case after a guilty plea or guilty verdict. Depending on your charge(s), sentencing may include jail/prison time, community service, probation, fines, etc.