Like many people who’ve been accused of a crime, you may be unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and unsure of what lies ahead. The criminal process consists of a number of different stages. Below, I’ve provided a simple explanation of the stages and what you need to know about each one.
Investigation and Arrest
A criminal case starts with an investigation, which can begin in several ways. An officer may observe someone doing something that creates a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is engaged in criminal activity. The legal standard of reasonable suspicion requires more than a mere hunch that a crime has been committed, but is a less demanding standard than “probable cause.” Reasonable suspicion must be based on articulable facts that a crime has been or is being committed.
If an officer has a reasonable suspicion that you are committing or have committed a crime, he may briefly detain you and inquire further. Unless the officer obtains further evidence that rises to the level of probable cause during this brief period of detention, the officer must conduct an investigation to develop further evidence to support an arrest.
The second way an investigation may be conducted is if a witness files a criminal complaint. Police officers will interview witnesses and gather evidence to determine if a crime has taken place. Sometimes alleged crimes occur in the officer’s presence, but often the police officer must piece together events that occurred before he arrived.
The officer must meet the higher standard of probable cause to arrest a suspect. Often a police officer obtains the probable cause needed from statements the suspect him- or herself has made. This is why it is essential not to speak to the police other than to provide identification until you have obtained legal advice. If an officer seeks to question, interview or interrogate you, decline to answer unless your attorney is present.
If you are placed under arrest, you will usually be handcuffed and taken to the police station for booking.
Case Review and Issuance
After the police officer talks to witnesses and gathers evidence, he notes his findings in his police report and submits it to the agency responsible for prosecuting the case. Misdemeanor cases occurring in the City of San Diego are submitted to the San Diego city attorney’s office. All other criminal offenses in the County of San Diego are submitted to the San Diego district attorney’s office. Prosecutors in charge of issuing cases in those two offices then review the reports to decide whether they believe the evidence proves the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
As your attorney, I may be able to submit favorable evidence to the reviewing prosecutor and prevent charges from being filed. I may also file a motion to prevent execution of a search warrant. Alternatively, I may persuade the issuing prosecutor that there is insufficient evidence to support a conviction based on the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Only when the prosecutor is convinced that he or she can prove the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt will he or she file formal charges against you.
Arraignment & Entering a Plea
An arraignment is the court proceeding in which the judge informs you as the accused that a criminal complaint has been filed against you and informs you of the nature of the charges. You are then referred to as the “defendant” in the criminal process and have the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.
It’s usually not wise to plead guilty to any criminal offense at arraignment without first having an attorney review the evidence against you and negotiate with the prosecution regarding the disposition (i.e., resolution) of your case. As a skilled criminal defense attorney who has handled thousands of cases, I aggressively pursue better dispositions that protect my clients’ rights and limit the resulting negative collateral consequences.
If you fail to show up in court at your arraignment, a bench warrant will be issued for your arrest. If you are arrested pursuant to a bench warrant, you will be brought to court in handcuffs.
While it’s never advisable to miss a court appearance, depending on the circumstances, I may be able to get the bench warrant quashed if you contact me promptly.
Pretrial Readiness Conference
A readiness conference is a court proceeding in which both sides discuss the merits of the case and determine if it can be resolved via plea bargain. Since the prosecution has the burden of proof, your attorney will negotiate with the prosecutor by highlighting any weaknesses in his or her case, such as that the charges cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
The prosecution will often offer guilty pleas to lesser charges to incentivize you to resolve your case early. If the case is resolved through a plea bargain, you will enter your plea and set your case for sentencing in accordance with the plea agreement. If the case is a misdemeanor and cannot be resolved, then it is set for trial. If, however, the case is a felony, then it is set for a preliminary hearing.
Preliminary hearings only happen in felony cases. A preliminary hearing is a “mini trial” of sorts in which the prosecution puts on witnesses to prove to the judge that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. The standard of proof at a preliminary hearing is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, like it is at trial, but rather is much lower. The prosecution must merely show the judge that there is probable cause to believe that you committed the crimes being charged.
While the defense has the option to put on their own evidence at the preliminary hearing, it’s often better to avoid giving the prosecution a preview of your defense strategy. Regardless, your side will have the opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses and expose any weaknesses. This preliminary opportunity to test the strength of the prosecution’s evidence can help determine whether proceeding to trial is advisable.
Second Arraignment Proceeding
After a preliminary hearing in a felony case, the judge makes a determination about whether the case should go forward. Sometimes a judge believes there isn’t enough evidence for the prosecution to proceed to trial on some or all of the charges. If the court finds that there’s enough evidence to proceed, the case is bound over and the criminal complaint is transformed into an Information.
The court will now hold a second arraignment in which you have another opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty to the remaining charges. If you plead not guilty, the case is set for another readiness conference in which both sides meet again to see if the case can be resolved prior to going to trial.
The readiness conference held after the preliminary hearing is your last chance to reach a resolution before going to trial. By this point, each side has conducted a thorough investigation into the merits of the charges. Frequently, the judge’s decisions or suggestions at the preliminary hearing will have resolved some of the contested issues in the case.
Sometimes the prosecutor will modify the offer to provide for more favorable terms based on weaknesses exposed in his or her case. Other times the judge who heard the preliminary hearing will give the defendant a lenient offer if he or she pleads guilty to the court and cuts the prosecution out of the mix. If the two sides cannot agree to a disposition, the court will set the case for a jury trial.
A jury trial is the process by which the prosecution and defense present their evidence to a jury of 12 citizens from the community, who decide whether or not you are guilty of a crime. A jury trial is an elaborate and protracted process that involves selecting a jury, bringing special pretrial motions and presenting evidence in accordance with the rules of evidence. In order to obtain a conviction, the prosecution must prove each element of each charge to all 12 jurors by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest standard of proof under the law.
If the prosecution is unable to convince the jurors of your guilt, then the case results in a hung jury, and the prosecution must determine whether to pursue a second trial.
I am often able to obtain not guilty verdicts from all 12 jurors, which means you are acquitted of the charges and the prosecution cannot retry the case. When this is not possible, I am often able to obtain a hung jury. Conviction rates are much lower in second trials, even if the prosecution were to pursue it.
Sentencing in a criminal case happens if you plead guilty, or a judge or jury finds you guilty. Sentencing involves the court informing a guilty defendant of the consequences of their criminal actions. In misdemeanor cases, a defendant is usually placed on probation, incarcerated in the county jail for a period of time, assessed a series of fines, placed in counseling classes, and/or subject to other terms and conditions.
Felony cases are handled differently. Defendants who are convicted of felonies must meet with the probation department for an interview in which they are asked a series of questions about their background and criminal history. The probation department then makes a recommendation to the court on whether or not probation or prison is the appropriate punishment. The sentencing judge reviews these recommendations and decides which terms to impose.
Your attorney plays a critical role during sentencing by submitting positive information about your background for consideration by the court. Effective representation at your sentencing hearing can go a long way toward mitigating the consequences of your conviction.