Overview of the Criminal Case Process in California Courts

Our criminal defense law firm often receives questions from clients on exactly how the criminal case process works in Los Angeles County criminal courts. Even for clients who were previously been arrested and charged with a crime, the process can be confusing.

Thus, we are providing a general overview of all the primary stages of a criminal case. The criminal justice system in the state of California has numerous complex rules and procedures.

Law enforcement officers will make an arrest on probable cause that you committed a crime. There is a common misconception that police officers or victims of a crime can file criminal charges against you, but they simply don’t possess the authority.

Police officers will write a report and collect evidence to provide the prosecuting agency, such as the District Attorney’s Office. They alone have the authority to file formal criminal charges.

Retaining a criminal defense lawyer early in the process is often a huge advantage and will increase the chances at the best possible outcome on the case. Our criminal lawyers will closely evaluate your situation in order to start planning a strategy for best possible defense.

To give readers a better understanding of the criminal case process, our California criminal defense attorneys are providing an overview below.

First Report and Criminal Investigation

Before any alleged crime can be prosecuted, there has to be an investigation, which starts with some form of a report. This normally occurs by someone calling 911 to report an incident. The call normally comes from an alleged victim or a witness.

After a crime has been reported to a law enforcement agency, police officers or sheriff’s deputies will respond to the scene. Depending on the type of crime being reported, such as serious violent crimes like murder, a detective will normally be assigned to the case to conduct an investigation before anyone is arrested.

Also, in criminal cases where no initial arrest was made, or a suspect bailed out of jail, a detective will be assigned to the case to for a formal investigation.

This investigative process can take weeks, months, or even longer depending on the type of alleged crime, and the work load of the detective. At this stage in the process, it’s crucial to retain a criminal lawyer for a potential prefiling intervention. This is a process where your lawyer can prepare an effective defense position with mitigating factors in an attempt to get the case dropped before formal charges are filed.

Formal Filing of the Complaint

After a detective has finished their investigation – the case will be sent to a prosecuting agency for filing consideration. In their report, the detective will state the factual basis for criminal charges.

A Deputy District Attorney (felony cases) or City Attorney (misdemeanor cases) will make the decision whether the case should proceed for formal filing of charges. In most cases, this decision is made prior to the first court date, but there are situations where more time is needed.

When you make your first court appearance, it’s possible you could be told that no case has yet been filed and given a proof of the appearance. The prosecuting agency is bound by the statute of limitations on how long they have to file charges – which is one year on a misdemeanor case – and three years on a felony.

Criminal Court Arraignment

If your criminal case has been filed, first court date is called an “arraignment” – which is where you will have normally enter a not guilty plea – receive discovery – which normally includes police report and statements from witnesses.

Your arraignment is also when your defense lawyer can make a request for decreased bail. If you are charged with domestic violence, the judge will normally issue a protective order prohibiting you from making contact with the alleged victim while the case is pending.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor case and have already retained a private criminal lawyer, they can make the court appearance on your behalf without your presence. However, if you are charged with a felony, you will need to be present in court.

Early Disposition – Pretrial Conference

After your arraignment, the next court date will be some type of status conference.  The exact name used for this stage will be different from one court to the next, but the primary distinction is between a felony or misdemeanor case.

If charged with a felony, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing, commonly known as a “probable cause hearing,” where the prosecutor has a very low burden of proof and only has to show enough evidence to take the case to a jury trial.

Misdemeanor cases are different and don’t have this right – meaning you have to settle the case or go to trial.

There are often numerous early disposition conferences, preliminary hearing dates, or pretrial conferences. On all of these dates, any issues of outstanding discovery can be dealt with while there are settlement negotiations in order to determine if the case can be resolved without contested litigation.

If you defense attorney submits any type of motion that would require a formal hearing – like a motion to suppress evidence – the court could decide to hold the hearing on one of these setting dates.  However, on a felony case, a motion to suppress in heard as part of the preliminary hearing.

Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing is a formal probable cause hearing that is similar to a jury trial. Legal arguments and witness testimony and is presented to the court – but it’s important to note the burden of proof is substantially lower.

The prosecutor has to only show that probable cause exists to “hold you to answer” – meaning there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

This is far different than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that is required for a conviction at trial.

A preliminary hearing is an opportunity to find holes in the felony case and to cross-examine a prosecutor’s witnesses. By showing strengths and weaknesses in the case, a preliminary hearing often persuades a prosecutor to make a settlement offer.  Again, preliminary hearings don’t occur on misdemeanor cases.

Criminal Court Trial & Sentencing

If there is not a negotiated resolution with the prosecutor, your case will then proceed to a jury trial that is as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. A group of 12 jurors will be asked to evaluate the evidence in order to determine if you were proven guilty – beyond any reasonable doubt.

If they decide the evidence supports the case, you will be deemed convicted of the crime.  If not, you will be acquitted. If you plead guilty or no contest through a plea bargain, or found guilty by a jury, you will now be facing sentencing.

If you agreed to a plea bargain, you will already know the sentence before formal sentencing and the role of the judge is to approve the deal already made between your criminal defense lawyer and prosecutor. However, if you were found guilty by a verdict, the judge has discretion to impose a sentence.

California has a sentencing regime where the judge will choose between a low-term, mid-term, or high-term for each conviction under the Penal Code.

For a misdemeanor crime, the maximum sentence is up to one year in county jail, but a felony conviction carries at least 16 months in a California state prison – all the way to the death penalty.

Court Appearances After Conviction

In situations where you where you were grated probation – on both a misdemeanor or felony case – you will be given terms and conditions to complete – such as paying fines, community service, counseling, and other obligations that were set by the judge.

The court will normally require progress report dates to ensure you are following the terms of probation. If you don’t follow the obligations, the court could find you in violation of probation and give you additional punishment.

If you are accused of a probation violation, you have the right to a hearing where the prosecutor has the burden – by a preponderance of evidence – to establish your violated probation.

Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

The criminal investigative and court process is can be complicated, and take months or even years from start to finish. Therefore, you will need experienced legal representation at every stage in order to have the best chance of success.

If you or a family member have been charged with a crime, contact our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys to review your case and options.

Cron, Israels & Stark is a criminal defense law firm with decades of experience and a long history of success. Our office is located at 11755 Wilshire Blvd, 15th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Contact us for a free case evaluation at (424) 372-3112.