In any criminal case other than most infractions, where the potential for jail or prison time exists, a defendant has the right to be represented by an attorney, even if the defendant cannot afford one. In criminal infraction cases, a defendant also has the right to a lawyer if he or she is arrested and NOT released on his or her written notice to appear, on his or her own recognizance, or after a deposit of bail. The reason is that a criminal proceeding is complicated, and the consequences, besides incarceration (jail or prison time), can be severe. For example, a conviction can result in deportation for noncitizens or prevent a legal resident alien from becoming a citizen.
Certain convictions can prevent persons from holding many types of jobs. Experienced criminal defense attorneys, whether they are for private hire, serve as public defenders, or are appointed by the court, know about the criminal justice system — how it works, which options are available to a defendant, and what the likely outcomes of different options are. Whenever possible, get the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney when you are charged with a crime.
Criminal court is where you go when the state believes you have committed a crime and it files charges against you. Generally, the District Attorney’s Office represents the state. Each county has its own District Attorney’s Office. In some cities certain offenses are prosecuted by the city attorney instead of the district attorney.
Only the government — not another person or private agency — can charge you with a criminal violation.
In criminal court, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
When the police arrest someone (the defendant), they take him or her to jail.
Then, 1 of 3 things happens:
The arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court.
At the arraignment, the judge tells the defendant:
The defendant may then respond to the charges by entering a plea. Common pleas include guilty, not guilty, or no contest (also known as “nolo contendere”).
After the defendant enters a plea (responds to the charges), the judge will:
In misdemeanor cases, if the defendant enters a not guilty plea, after the arraignment and before the trial:
In felony cases, after the arraignment, if the case does not settle or get dismissed the judge holds a preliminary hearing. At this hearing, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to make the defendant have to appear for a trial. If the judge decides that there is enough evidence, the prosecutor will file a document called “the Information.” Then, the defendant will be arraigned, a second time, on the Information. At that time, the defendant will enter a plea and proceed to trial. Before the trial:
Defendants in criminal cases (other than infractions) have the right to have a jury of their peers decide their guilt or innocence. Therefore, before trial, defendants need to decide whether to have a jury trial (where the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not) or a court trial (where the judge decides). Usually, defendants choose to have a jury trial because they want a jury of their peers to hear the evidence and decide their guilt. But sometimes there may be circumstances where a defense attorney will recommend a court trial without a jury.
Everyone accused of a crime is legally presumed to be innocent until they are convicted, either by being proved guilty at a trial or by pleading guilty before trial. This means that it is the prosecutor who has to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty and must provide proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has the right to remain silent and that silence cannot be used against him or her.
For a jury trial for a misdemeanor case: The law says how soon a defendant charged with a misdemeanor must be brought to trial. (See section 1382 of the Penal Code).
If the defendant is in custody at the arraignment, the trial must start within 30 days of arraignment or plea, whichever is later.
If the defendant is not in custody at the arraignment, the trial must start within 45 days of arraignment or plea, whichever is later.
The defendant can “waive” (give up) the right to a speedy trial. This means the defendant agrees to have the trial after the required deadline (also known as “waiving time”). But even if the defendant waives time, the law says the trial must start within 10 days after the trial date is set. It is very important for defendants to get advice from an attorney before they waive time.
For a jury trial for a felony case:: The law says how soon a defendant charged with a felony must be brought to trial. (See section 1382 of the Penal Code.)
The prosecutor must file the Information within 15 days of the date the defendant was “held to answer” at the preliminary hearing.
The trial must start within 60 days of the arraignment on the Information.
The defendant can “waive” (give up) the right to a speedy trial. This means he or she agrees to have the trial after the 60-day period (also known as “waiving time”). It is very important for defendants to get advice from an attorney before they “waive time.”
If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, it is called an “acquittal” and the defendant will be released. The defendant can never be tried again for the same crime. This is called “double jeopardy.” A finding of not guilty is not the same as a finding of innocence. It simply means that the jury was not convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The arrest will still show on the defendant’s record, along with the acquittal. If a defendant was wrongfully arrested and charged, and he or she wants to get the arrest removed from her or his record, a hearing to determine the factual innocence of the defendant must be held in front of a judge. It is often much harder to prove factual innocence, than to raise a reasonable doubt about guilt.
If the defendant is found guilty, the defendant will be sentenced.
If you are found guilty after a trial, you have the right to an appeal process. There are many reasons for an appeal of a criminal case, but appeals are also very difficult, so talk to a lawyer to make sure you know what is best for you.
There are also important deadlines that apply to appeals. If you miss the deadline, your appeal will most likely be dismissed.
Keep in mind that the appeal is not a new trial. The appellate court can review the evidence (testimony and exhibits) presented at your trial to see if the trial court made a legal error in how the testimony or exhibits were received. The appellate court does NOT decide the facts of the case as the judge or jury in the trial court does.
You can only appeal if:
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