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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. 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.

Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases

A criminal case happens when the government files a case in court to punish someone (the defendant) for committing a crime. If the defendant is found guilty of a crime, he or she may face jail or prison.

A civil case happens when one person, business, or agency sues another one because of a dispute between them, usually involving money. If someone loses a civil case, they may be ordered to pay the other side money or to give up property, but they will not go to jail just for losing the case.

In a criminal case, the government must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence” (more than 50 percent). This means that a party to a civil case can win if he or she is able to convince the judge or jury that his or her side of the case is slightly more convincing than the other side’s.

In criminal cases where the charge is a misdemeanor or felony, if the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one without cost to the defendant. In civil cases, if a party cannot afford a lawyer, they have to represent themselves. There is no right to a court-appointed lawyer in an infraction case.

In criminal cases, defendants almost always have the right to a trial by jury, except in infraction cases. In civil matters, there are many types of cases where there is no right to a trial by jury.

Types of Criminal Cases

There are 3 types of criminal cases:


Many traffic violations are infractions.

The punishment for infractions is usually a fine, and if the defendant pays the fine, there is no jail time.


(also known as “DUI” or “driving under the influence”)

A misdemeanor is a crime with a maximum punishment of: o Either 6 months or 1 year in a county jail, and/or o A $1,000 fine (for most misdemeanors).


A felony is the most serious kind of crime. If found guilty, the defendant can be sent to jail or prison for a year or more, or even receive the death penalty for very serious crimes. Defendants convicted of felonies are usually sent to state prison for sentences of 16 months or more.

Should I Hire An Attorney?

In any misdemeanor or felony criminal case (and any infraction where you have been arrested and NOT released on your written notice to appear, on your own recognizance, or after a deposit of bail), you should have a lawyer. You have the right to represent yourself in criminal court in California. BUT because the consequences of a criminal conviction can be so serious and you can end up in jail or prison, it is best if you have a lawyer represent you.

What Should I Do?

If you are reading this website because your friend or family member is in jail, and you are trying to get helpful information, the first thing you should tell your friend or family member is: “While you are in jail, it is important not to discuss the facts of your case with anyone—not the police, not other inmates—don’t even talk to your friends or family over the phone about the facts of the case. (It is usually okay to tell people your booking number and what you are charged with.) Please wait until you meet your lawyer to talk about the facts of your case because only conversations between you and your lawyer are protected by attorney-client privilege and are confidential, and only your lawyer will be able to give you accurate, reliable advice about how to proceed with your case.”