Stages of Criminal Proceeding
In preparing for your criminal proceedings, it is extremely important to understand the court process. In doing so, you increase your knowledge of the inner workings of the court hearings, leaving out unnecessary confusion and increasing your chances for a successful outcome. Always remember to touch basis with your attorney and/or his/her paralegal with any questions to ensure that you are informed. Let's touch base on the many phases you will face during the proceedings.
After you have been arrested for a crime in the State of California, your first formal court appearance is called the arraignment. This is your opportunity to enter a plea in your case. The three most common pleas at arraignment are: guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere, also referred to as “no contest”. Nolo Contendereor “no contest” simply means that you do not wish to contest the charges brought against you. This is essentially the same as a guilty plea as it will result in a criminal conviction. When you plead this way, you are not technically admitting guilt, however, you are still allowing the court to determine your punishment.
Before you can plead “no contest”, the judge must
:•Accept the plea
•Be sure that you completely understand that a “no contest” plea is the same as a guilty plea and that by allowing such plea to enter, the court will find you guilty
•Ensure that you are entering into this plea voluntarily and freely (not being coerced or misled into doing so)Once these requirements are fulfilled, you will then proceed to a California sentencing hearing, where sentence will be imposed.
Note: There are benefits to pleading “no contest” in a misdemeanor case, as the guilty plea cannot be used against you in a civil case. However, in a felony case, a “no contest” plea holds the exact same effect as a guilty plea and can be used against you in other legal proceedings.
If you enter a guilty plea, you also proceed directly to a sentencing hearing.
If you enter a not guilty plea, which is more common, the judge will address the issue of bail.
California Bail and Bail Bonds
This refers to the money that will be posted with the court to ensure that you will attend your court appearances. As discussed earlier, this bail is typically set according to a local county bail schedule. However, you will be provided with the opportunity to request a reduction in the scheduled bail. California Bail Hearings
During a bail hearing, you are allowed to present mitigating factors to support your request to either reduce or eliminate your bail. However, before the judge will do so, he/she will need to consider the following factors:
•Your criminal history
•The seriousness of the offense
•Your likelihood to return to court
•The facts of the case
•Your community ties
•Own Recognizance (O.R.)
If the judge does agree to waive your bail, he/she will release you on your own recognizance. As long as you are not charged with a capital offense, you are entitled to an O.R., unless that release will either compromise public safety or will not reasonably ensure your appearance in court.
Once you have entered a “not guilty plea”, and the issue of bail has been resolved, you will enter into the pretrial process.
California's Pretrial Process
This is the phase of the criminal court process where the majority of cases are resolved. Pretrial refers to all of the proceedings which will take place prior to trial. They include:
•Plea bargains or negotiations
•The Preliminary Hearing in a Felony Case
The preliminary hearing is the first hearing to take place. It can also be referred to as a probable cause hearing. This hearing is offered to ensure that you are not being tried for a crime in which there is not adequate evidence.
The judge will ask:
•Is there probable cause to believe that the crime was committed?
•And if so, is there probable cause to believe that you are the person who committed the crime?
If the answers to these questions are yes, the judge will then approve the charges and transfer your case to the trial court for further proceedings. These proceedings usually include motions, and many of these motions will be described later on.
If your case does not settle during the pretrial process, it will then proceed to trial.
You will either be assigned to a bench trial or a jury trial. A bench trial is when the judge acts as both the judge and the jury. A jury trial is when 12 selected members of the community hear the evidence against you, and they decide whether you are innocent or guilty. If you are accused of a felony in the State of California, you are entitled to a jury trial, unless you waive it and go to a bench trial. A jury trial will proceed as follows:
•Opening statements by both prosecution and defense
•Closing arguments by both prosecution and defense
•Sentencing, if necessary
Proceedings Following a Guilty Plea or a Guilty Verdict
You may be entitled to a new trial if you feel your verdict was spoiled by:
•Misconduct by the prosecution
•Error of law by the court
•Trial record and/or transcript has been lost/destroyed
•New evidence exists
If any of the above occur, you may file a motion for a new trial, which will be discussed in a later section.
A sentencing hearing allows both sides with an opportunity to voice their opinion to the judge as to what they feel is an appropriate sentence. It is very important to have a skilled attorney on your side, because if you are convicted, your attorney will be arguing at the sentencing hearing and presenting mitigating circumstances in the hopes of justifying a lenient sentence. AppealAfter sentencing, you now have the right to appeal the decision. In an appeal, you will now be the “appellant” instead of the defendant. Your attorney will argue to the court that your case should be dismissed, or retried, or that you be resentenced, based on legal mistakes which affected the jury's decision or the sentence imposed. The court, at this time, will not consider any new evidence and will only look at the record of the proceedings in the lower court. This consists of the court reporter's transcripts of everything that happened in court and documents or objects which were submitted as evidence.
The appellate court will look into this record and also review briefs which have been written and filed by both sides. Sometimes cases are decided based on the briefs alone and some are selected for oral argument before the court. Oral argument is a discussion between the appellate attorneys and a panel of judges at which time they will focus on the legal principles which are in dispute. Each attorney is given approximately 15 minutes or so to present their arguments to the court. The decision of the court of appeals is usually final, unless, however, it sends your case back to the trial court for further proceedings. The parties can also request the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. There are some cases that may even be reviewed by a larger group of judges within the court of appeals. If you lose your case in a federal court of appeals (the highest court in the state), your attorney can file what is known as a “writ of certiorari”, and which is basically a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. Keep in mind that the Supreme Court is not required to review the case. The Supreme Court will normally agree to review a case when:
•It involves an important legal principle, or
•Two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently.
There are many exceedingly important rights that you are entitled to in a criminal court of law. Knowing these rights can be extremely helpful in understanding your case and understanding what your attorney is preparing for you in order to represent you as effectively as possible.