When you commit a crime, you go through a criminal process. This process starts when the police arrest you and ends when you receive the final court decision after an appeal. Court processes differ from case to case, depending on the kinds of charges you face. Typically, your approach will depend on whether you face a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction charge.
From the start, you enjoy specific constitutional rights, which the police and anyone in the judicial system must respect. For example, you can have legal representation, the right to a fair jury, and protection against incriminating yourself.
Understanding the criminal process is necessary to know what to expect after arrest. You could also benefit from the help of a skilled criminal lawyer to navigate the process successfully.
The Criminal Court Process After an Infraction
An infraction is a law violation punishable by a court fine. The law has many infractions that do not necessitate an arrest, detention, or criminal trial. Examples include most traffic violations, like speeding and running the red light. When you commit an infraction, the police give you a citation to appear before a judge on a bench trial. You are allowed to contest the infraction during that trial. The judge will order you to pay a fine if you are unsuccessful. But if you successfully defend yourself, you can go without paying any court fines.
Thus, the criminal process for an infraction is pretty straightforward. Infractions are not regarded as crimes, like felonies and misdemeanors. They do not result in incarceration or probation. If you face charges for an infraction, you cannot face a jury trial but a bench trial presided over by the judge. The judge will hear your charges, study the evidence presented by the prosecutor, and listen to your testimony to make the final decision.
But you can have a criminal defense attorney if you face an infraction. An attorney will help you with the legal matter. However, if you do not have a private attorney, the state will not appoint you a public attorney. You will contest the infraction on your own. If you win the case, the judge will dismiss all your charges. But if the judge finds you guilty, you will pay a maximum court fine of $250.
Since most infractions are traffic violations, the state is mandated to report your violation to the DMV. While the DMV is not obligated to bring charges against you, they can add some points to your driver’s record. Drivers who exceed a particular number of points on their record eventually face sanctions like suspension or revocation of their driver’s licenses.
The Criminal Court Process After a Misdemeanor or Felony
A misdemeanor is an offense punishable by a maximum jail sentence of one year. Misdemeanors are more severe than infractions but less profound than felonies. Misdemeanor offenses include DUI, drug possession or personal use, and public intoxication.
A felony is the most severe crime under the law, punishable by a longer jail or prison sentence. The judge also imposes a hefty fine on the offender, which can go up to $10,000 instead of or in addition to incarceration. The most serious felonies are punishable by life imprisonment without parole. Felonies include the following:
- Vehicular manslaughter.
- Possession for sale of a controlled substance.
The criminal process for misdemeanors is the same as for felonies. But since misdemeanors and felonies are more serious than infractions, you will likely go through a more structured criminal process following an arrest. Here are the steps to expect when you commit a misdemeanor or felony:
Some criminal cases start with the police catching you in an act of crime. Other cases begin with the police suspecting you of committing a crime. In the latter situation, the police must investigate the matter before making an arrest. The investigation process includes eyewitness interviews, searches, and seizures. Sometimes, in the investigation process, the police will contact you for information.
You can protect yourself against self-incrimination. That is why you are not obligated to answer the police’s questions. You also have the right to hire an attorney who will speak to the police on your behalf.
Not all investigations result in arrests. If the officers do not have sufficient evidence against you, your attorney can persuade them to dismiss the matter.
If the officers have enough evidence to support your misdemeanor or felony charges, they will arrest you. The arrest follows a booking process: the arresting officer enters your identifying details into the police database. All this is done in a police station, where the arresting officer takes you after the arrest. The information the officer will gather includes the following:
- Your fingerprints.
- Personal information, including your name, date of birth, and address.
- Your mugshots.
- Specific details of your case.
- Your criminal record.
The officer will then release you or lock you in a police cell. If you are to be released, the officer will do so on personal recognizance or after posting bond. A release on personal recognizance is mainly for first-time offenders. But you must first agree to make all court appearances without fail. If you are a repeat offender or are less likely to appear for trial, the officer will inform you how much bail you must pay to be released, according to a bail schedule. A bail schedule is a predetermined list of offenses and amounts of bail suspected offenders must pay for a pretrial release.
Note: The police can use your arrest and detention to gather more evidence against you. They will want to hear your side of the story. Before asking you any questions, they must read your Miranda Rights. You are not under any obligation to answer the questions the officers ask you. Instead, ask for legal representation.
After your arrest and booking, the police will turn over your case file to the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides whether to file charges against you based on the evidence the police have gathered against you. If the evidence does not support your charges, the prosecutor will dismiss the case and call for your release from custody. You will move on to the next step if the evidence is sufficient.
You will appear before a judge once the prosecutor files criminal charges against you in criminal court. The judge will read the charges against you and allow you to enter a plea. You have three plea options:
- A not-guilty plea.
- A guilty plea.
- A plea of no contest.
If you choose a no-contest or guilty plea, you will go directly to the sentencing step, where the judge will announce your penalties for the underlying charges. But if you choose a plea of not guilty, the judge will give dates for your trial. They will also discuss the bail matter.
Note: You can have legal representation during this hearing. If you do not have a private attorney, you will be represented by a public attorney.
This is the process by which most misdemeanor or felony cases are solved before an actual trial. For example, if the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence against you, they can decide to dismiss the matter. Also, your attorney and prosecutor can agree on a plea bargain whereby you plead guilty to your charges or a less severe offense. In that case, you will go straight to sentencing.
A pretrial process can last 45 days or more, depending on how prepared the prosecution is to start trial. Other proceedings that could happen during this process include:
- Other court dates.
- Discovery issues, whereby the prosecution and defense teams share relevant evidence.
- The motion practice, if the prosecution or defense requires the court to take a particular motion.
- Negotiation and plea bargain.
This is when the prosecution team exchanges information with the defense team. Each team must know and be prepared for what the other team has. During this process, the prosecution team shares evidence against you with your attorney. Your attorney must also share any evidence they have with the prosecutor. The evidence includes the witnesses the teams plan to call to the stand and the subject of their testimony. The discovery process can reveal the following:
- Any physical evidence the teams have gathered about the case.
- Police reports that apply to the case.
- Witness statements.
- Expert statements and reports.
The Motion Practice
The defense or prosecution can ask the judge to make a specific ruling based on some element of your case. For example, the defense can petition the court to suppress evidence in your case. That can happen if the officers do not use legal means to obtain the evidence. The judge will consider the motion and listen to the defense’s arguments to grant the petition.
The defense team can also file a Pitchess motion to request information available in a particular officer’s file. If there are previous complaints of the officer’s use of bias or excessive force in the file, the defense team can use that to fight your charges. The defense often uses Pitchess motions to taint an officer’s credibility. If the prosecution learns about incriminating details in a particular police file, they can quickly offer a plea bargain to the defense team or dismiss your charges.
The cases that are not resolved during the pretrial process go to trial. Remember that even though you can demand a quick trial, you can delay it for months. The law has mainly two types of trials:
The Bench Trial
These are court trials that happen before a judge and not a jury. The judge also serves as the jury to deliver the final verdict.
The Jury Trial
These trials occur before a judge and a jury. The jury is a committee of twelve members chosen to hear a criminal case, study the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense teams, and issue a verdict.
If you face misdemeanor or felony charges, you will go through a jury trial. Your jury trial will take the following steps:
- Selection of the twelve-member team that will preside over your case.
- Opening statements by the prosecutor and your defense attorney.
- The prosecutor and your attorney present evidence to support and counter your charges, respectively.
- Closing arguments by the prosecutor and your attorney.
- The jury takes a break from the court proceedings to deliberate on its findings.
- The jury returns to court to give its verdict.
The judge will dismiss your case if the jury finds you not guilty of your charges. But if the jury finds you guilty, the judge will give you a court date for your sentencing.
In criminal cases, the prosecutor bears the burden of proof during trial. They must demonstrate with irrefutable evidence that you committed the misdemeanor or felony for which you face charges. The law provides detailed definitions of crimes with transparent elements for each offense. The prosecutor must prove each element of the offense for the jury to deliver a guilty verdict. If the prosecutor can only establish a few elements of the crime and not all, the jury cannot find you guilty because the evidence is insufficient. In that case, the judge will dismiss your charges.
What Follows a Guilty Plea or Verdict?
If you plead guilty to a misdemeanor or felony during the first arraignment, you will not go through all those other processes. Instead, you will go straight to sentencing.
If the jury finds you guilty, you can file a motion with the court for a new trial, proceed to sentencing, or appeal your case. A skilled criminal defense attorney will guide you through each process until you obtain a fair outcome.
Find a Competent Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
The California criminal process is complex and challenging to navigate independently. It involves a lot of processes that can be confusing to anyone without legal knowledge. You need the assistance of a skilled criminal attorney to enjoy a streamlined process. Our Foos Gavin Law Firm team has extensive experience handling all criminal cases, including infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. We can guide you through all the processes, depending on your charges in Sacramento. We could also use our best defense strategies to fight your charges for the most favorable outcome. Call us at 916-779-3500 to learn more about our services and your charges.