Court Process

CALIFORNIA CRIMINAL COURT PROCESS

Crimes are categorized by seriousness as infractions, misdemeanors or felonies. Click here to find out What To Do If You Are Arrested for a crime in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Infractions are the only that most Californians ever come into contact with police officers or the court system. Most people are not criminals but many people get traffic tickets, from talking on your cell phone and not wearing a seatbelt to speeding or driving without a license. All of these are crimes, infractions under the California codes. You have the many of the same rights when charged with an infraction as you do with a misdemeanor or felony. You have a right to speedy trial (court trial, not to a jury), you have the right to an attorney but not a court appointed lawyer, and you have the right to remain silent.

Unfortunately most infractions resolve before ever reaching a courtroom. Most people pay their tickets. That’s because people don’t know they can fight a traffic ticket or that they have a right to an attorney or maybe they do not want to take the time to fight. I do not advise simply paying a ticket unless you are eligible for traffic school and you can be guaranteed that you will not receive any points on your driving record and that your insurance rates will not go up.

Should you decide to fight an infraction the court process begins with an arraignment at which time you are formally advised of your charges enter a plea of not guilty. The case is then either set for a trial, or if requested, a trial by written declaration. One benefit of a trial by declaration if that if you are found guilty you can still request a new trial in front of court, essentially getting two bites at the apple.

Misdemeanors usually involve a few court appearances and resolve within a one to two months. In California you have a legal right to have an attorney appear in court on your behalf on a misdemeanor case and you may never have to appear in court yourself. At the first appearance, your arraignment, your attorney will enter a plea of not guilty on your behalf. Your next appearance is for a pre-trial conference or settlement conference. At the pre-trial conference, your attorney will discuss your case with the judge and district attorney and convey any offer of settlement made by the district attorney to you thereafter. Should your case not settle at the pre-trial conference it will be set it for a further settlement conference, motion hearing, or jury trial. A trial in a misdemeanor case must be held within thirty days of your arraignment if you are in custody and within forty-five days of your arraignment if you are out of custody, unless you waive your right to a speedy trial.

If you plead guilty, or are convicted at trial, sentencing will normally occur immediately. However, you do have a right to delayed sentencing and the opportunity to present facts through your lawyer that favor you. Your lawyer will argue for as lenient a sentence as possible. The district attorney will present their arguments in favor of a longer sentence. The judge decides the actual terms of your sentence with in the limits of the law.

A misdemeanor conviction can result in probation, fines and/or county jail time up to one year. Further, convictions for driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license and other vehicle code violations can result in points being assessed on your driving record by the DMV and in further driver’s license suspensions.

Felonies do not usually resolve quickly. Typically, there are many court appearances, even without trial. Once charges are filed, you will have an arraignment where you are told the actual charges against you and you will enter a plea of not guilty. Typically your next court appearance will be for a readiness conference at which your attorney will negotiate with the prosecution in an attempt to resolve your case in a manner that is favorable to you. If your case does not resolve at the readiness conference, you will proceed to a preliminary hearing which, depending on whether you waive your rights to a speedy hearing, will be held no later than sixty days after your arraignment. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for the court to determine if there is probable cause to believe you committed the crimes you are charged with. The burden of proof is very low at preliminary hearings. If you are held to answer to the charges at the preliminary hearing, you will have another arraignment date, within fifteen days, at which time you will enter a plea bargain or plead not guilty and your case will be set for further readiness conferences and/or motion hearing and trial dates. In California, a trial in a felony case must be held within sixty days of your "Superior Court" arraignment unless you waive your rights to a speedy trial.

If you plead guilty to a felony, or are convicted at trial, sentencing will occur within twenty court days unless you waive your right to a speedy sentencing. At sentencing, you will have the opportunity to present facts and witnesses through your lawyer that favor you. Your lawyer will argue for as lenient a sentence as possible. The district attorney will present their arguments in favor of a longer sentence. The judge decides your fate. Felony sentences can be determined in by probation department reports and recommendations, negotiated dispositions, and sentencing guidelines written into the law.

A felony conviction can cost you rights, including the right to possess a gun, vote, or your right to work in certain professions. Felonies may also subject you to state prison sentences.