To gain a general understanding of the criminal justice system in California, you should become familiar with the 3 categories of crimes as well as the various stages that a criminal case will go through in court. While the following explanation is specific to California, it loosely applies to other jurisdictions throughout the Unites States.
There are 3 categories of crimes in California. They are referred to as infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. The least serious of these are infractions. Infractions are not punishable by jail time or incarceration of any kind. A common example of an infraction is a speeding ticket. Misdemeanors, however, are punishable by a maximum of one year in the county jail. Some misdemeanors have a minimum jail sentence, and some do not. Felonies are punishable by more than one year in jail or state prison. Felonies are the most serious category of crimes in our criminal justice system.
If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it is common to experience feelings of anxiety, fear, embarrassment and confusion. Most people feel lost and are vulnerable to the legal obstacles that lay ahead.
Clients facing criminal charges regularly ask:
- Will I have to go to jail?
- Will this crime go on my record?
- Can I get the charges dismissed?
- Can I get the charges reduced?
- Can I speak to the prosecutor’s office and ask them not to prosecute?
- Will I be fired from work?
- Will my professional license be suspended (i.e. medical, real estate, etc.)
- Will the public be able to see that I was arrested?
- Can I have this case cleared from my record?
- Will my work find out?
- How much are the fines?
The most important step to protecting yourself is to understand how the legal process works. Once you gain a general understanding of the criminal process, you will be in a much better position to select a criminal lawyer who best suited to represent you. You will be able prepare for you immediate future, and plan accordingly at work and in your personal life. We have also found that most clients are able to deal with their anxiety much better when they understand process and are able to prepare for things to come.
Criminal cases typically go through a process that can take several months to resolve. Cases are rarely resolved on the first court date.
The first court date is called the arraignment, where you will enter a plea for the first time. Usually, you or your attorney will plead not guilty. During this court date, you must either personally appear in court or have your attorney appear on your behalf. Your attorney may address issues related to bail, including a request to have you released on your own recognizance. Your attorney will also received a copy of the police report and the criminal complaint setting forth the charges against you. A future court date will be selected to give your attorney an opportunity to prepare your case and begin the plea bargaining process with the prosecutor.
The next court date is often referred to as the pre-trial conference. During this court date, your attorney make make various pretrial motions including discovery motions to compel the prosecutor to produce evidence requested by your lawyer. Also, your lawyer will typically make efforts to negotiate a dismissal or reduction of the charges against you. Alternatively, your attorney will negotiate towards some other favorable settlement of your case, or he will prepare your case for trial.
Pre-trial hearings can be set again and again. In fact, they are often set numerous times before a case is finally settled. During this time, your attorney should be methodically working to improve the posture of your case and not just continuing your case out of convenience to his own schedule.
If your case is a felony and has not been settled during the pretrial phase, it will be set for a preliminary hearing (preliminary examination) for a judge to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to keep the charges against you pending. The preliminary hearing is a formal hearing where the prosecutor may call witnesses to establish that the accused has likely committed the charges brought against him. It is not a trial and you cannot be convicted here. The standard of proof is much lower than what is required for a conviction at trial. If, however, the court finds that the prosecutor’s evidence against the accused is insufficient, the case can be dismissed.
The final phase is the trial. The defendant alone decides whether or not he will go to trial. If the defendant is not satisfied with the settlement offer, he can choose to proceed to a trial where a judge or jury will decide whether the client is guilty or not. The defendant may select if he wants a judge or jury to hear his case. If the defendant is unanimously found not guilty by a jury, he will be acquitted of the charges and the proceedings will be over. If the client is unanimously found to be guilty, then his case may be set for a future sentencing date so that the judge may determine the defendant’s sentence. If the jury’s vote is not unanimous, it will result in a hung jury and a mistrial will be declared and a new trial date may be set.
It is imperative to have a well qualified criminal defense lawyer representing you through every step of this complicated process. The four most typical scenarios where you should immediately contact a criminal defense lawyer are as follows:
- You have been cited for a criminal violation, but not arrested.
- You have been arrested for suspicion of committing a crime.
- You have not been cited nor arrested, but you have been contacted by a police officer and may be under criminal investigation.
- You have not been cited nor arrested and are not currently under investigation, but you fearful that your past conduct may have been a criminal violation.
If you are facing criminal charges, you must find an experienced and aggressive criminal defense lawyer who has extensive trial experience. It is equally important that your lawyer have a strong working relationship with local judges and prosecutors.
We encourage you to contact our office immediately at any one of our local telephone numbers or toll free at 1-800-384-5464. Attorney Ardalon Fakhimi will provide you with a confidential free consultation to evaluate your case and answer any questions you may have.
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