Criminal Court General Information
Criminal Court hears cases ranging from minor offenses (misdemeanors)
such as traffic infractions to serious ones like robbery and murder
(felonies). The state or prosecutor makes the charge against someone
accused of committing a crime because a crime is considered an act
against society. The prosecuting attorney presents the charge against
the accused person (defendant) on behalf of the state (plaintiff),
and must prove to the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty beyond
a reasonable doubt.
A misdemeanor is punishable by fine or imprisonment in a city or county
jail rather than in a state penitentiary. Felony cases are punishable
by imprisonment in a state prison or, in extreme cases, by death.
In all criminal cases, the defendant is presumed to be innocent. That
means he or she may not be convicted unless proved guilty beyond a
A criminal case begins when a prosecutor files formal charges, a person
is arrested, or a grand jury issues an indictment.
If a defendant, the person accused of a crime, is in custody, he or
she has the right to an arraignment within 48 hours of being arrested.
At this hearing the judge will officially tell defendants about their
constitutional rights and explain the charges against them. Also,
bail (property temporarily given to ensure that a person released
from custody will return at an appointed time) may be raised or lowered.
In order to be released without paying bail, defendants may request
to be released on their promise to appear. This is called "on
their own recognizance"
If a defendant who has been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor
cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint one from
the public defender's office. (The court does not appoint a public
defender in infraction cases since they do not result in jail or prison
At the arraignment defendants will be asked to plead to the charges
against them: guilty, not guilty, or, in some cases, nolo contendere
(the person does not contest the charges, which legally is the same
as a guilty plea).
Defendants who plead guilty to a misdemeanor may be sentenced during
the arraignment, unless the judge wishes to postpone sentencing in
order to study a probation report.
During the arraignment, if a defendant pleads not guilty to a misdemeanor,
the judge will set the date for a trial. The trial will be held within
30 days if the defendant is in custody or within 45 days if the defendant
is not in custody-unless the defendant waives the right to a speedy
If a defendant pleads guilty to a felony at the arraignment, he or
she must be represented by an attorney (unless the defendant, in a
noncapital case, waives the right to one). After a guilty plea, the
judge has the option to keep the case in that court for sentencing
or probation or to transfer the case to a superior court.
If a defendant pleads not guilty to a felony, a preliminary hearing
is held. At this hearing the district attorney must show evidence
that the defendant committed a felony and should be brought to trial.
This step (or the alternative, a grand jury indictment) is necessary
to make sure that only defendants against whom there is significant
evidence will undergo a felony trial.
If the judge decides that the district attorney did not show enough
evidence, the charges will be dropped and the defendant will go free.
However, if the judge decides there is enough evidence, the defendant
will be arraigned a second time in superior court, where the defendant
again will be formally charged, rights will be explained, and a plea
will be made.
At this time, the attorneys for both sides may negotiate an agreement
between the between them called a Plea Bargain. Typically the defendant
agrees to plead guilty to a specified charge in exchange for an oral
promise of a lower sentence.
Both felony and misdemeanor cases go to trial only rarely. Most (over
90 percent) are disposed of by defendants' pleas of guilty. Whether
the case involves a felony or misdemeanor, the trial follows the same
First, the district attorney, on behalf of the State of California,
files an information (a written charge against a defendant filed in
superior court after a preliminary examination) or an indictment (a
written accusation presented upon oath by a grand jury that a person
has committed a crime).
Not-Guilty Plea: When a defendant enters a plea of
not guilty, the case proceeds to trial. The jury is selected, 12 people
plus alternate jurors if the trial is expected to be long. At the
trial, lawyers on each side of the case may make brief statements
(called "opening statements") to the jury, outlining what
they expect to prove with the evidence they have.
Presentation of Evidence: Each side then has a turn to present
evidence, which can be pictures, objects, documents, or sworn testimony
by witnesses. Evidence must have a tendency to prove or disprove the
issues in the case. The judge decides if evidence is unreliable based
on evidence rules. The evidence rules are intended to ensure that
the evidence is reliable.
Objections: During a trial, if attorneys on either
side feel that a question asked or evidence offered is improper, they
may make objections. The judge may agree or disagree with such objections.
Closing Arguments: After both sides have presented
their evidence, each has a chance to present rebuttal, or opposing,
evidence. Then both sides of the case give their closing arguments.
This is the stage when the attorneys analyze and interpret the evidence
that was presented.
Verdict: The judge will instruct the jury on the
law that applies to the case. The jury then moves to the jury room
to reach a verdict. All 12 jurors must agree on a guilty verdict.
If the jury reaches a guilty verdict in a felony case, the judge will
order a probation report and schedule a sentencing hearing for 20
days later. A misdemeanor can be sentenced immediately.
Sentences: State and local laws define crimes and
specify punishment. The maximum sentence for an infraction is a fine;
for a misdemeanor it is up to one year in a county jail; and for a
felony it is time in a state prison or, for some murders, death. Some
counties offer "diversion" programs that allow a judge to
order a defendant to get medical treatment or counseling or to do
community service work. The diversion program may take the place of
a fine or jail sentence in certain types of misdemeanor and felony