The Criminal Court Process
When the police arrest someone (the defendant), they take him or her to jail.
Then, 1 of 3 things happens:
The defendant is released if the prosecutor (usually the district attorney or the city attorney) decides not to file charges; or
The defendant posts bail (also called a “bond”) or is released based on a promise to appear in court at a later date for arraignment. If either of these happen, the district attorney or police tell the defendant when to come to court for arraignment; or
The defendant stays in jail. Law enforcement officers transport the defendant to the court for arraignment.
1. Usually, the police cite or arrest someone and write a report. This report summarizes the events leading up to the arrest or citation and provides witnesses’ names and other relevant information. Defendants generally do NOT have a right to get a copy of the arrest report, but their lawyers do. The reason for this is to protect the identity of witnesses. This is another reason why it is important that a defendant charged with a misdemeanor or felony have a lawyer to represent him or her.
2. The prosecutor then decides whether to file charges and, if so, what charges to file. The prosecutor decides whether to charge the crime as a felony or a misdemeanor. The prosecutor can file charges on all of the crimes for which the police arrested the defendant or can decide to file fewer charges or more charges than were included in the arrest report.
3. Because defendants have a right to a speedy trial, the prosecutor must generally file charges within 48 hours of the arrest when the defendant is in custody (in jail). Weekends, court holidays, and mandatory court closure days do not count against the 48 hours. Also, the deadline for arraignment depends on what time of the day you were arrested, so talk to a lawyer to find out exactly when the prosecutor’s deadline to file charges is.
The arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court.
At the arraignment, the judge tells the defendant:
What the charges are, What his or her constitutional rights are, and That if he or she does not have enough money to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer free of charge.
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”).
Not Guilty means the defendant says he or she did not commit the crime. Sometimes, defendants enter a plea of not guilty as a strategic decision during plea bargaining or because they want to go to trial and force the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Guilty means the defendant admits he or she committed the crime. The judge finds the defendant guilty and enters a conviction in the court record. No Contest means the defendant does not contest (disagree with) the charge. This plea has the same effect as a guilty plea, except the conviction generally cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit.
If the defendant is in custody at the time of arraignment, after the defendant enters a plea (responds to the charges), the judge will:
Release the defendant on his or her “own recognizance” (which means the defendant promises to return to court on a specified date), OR Set bail and send the defendant back to the jail until the bail is posted, OR Refuse to set bail and send the defendant back to jail.
“Bail” is money or property that a defendant puts up as a promise to return for future court dates. When setting the amount of bail, the judge takes into account the seriousness of the crime, whether the defendant is a risk to the community, and whether he or she is a “flight risk” and likely to run away.
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. 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.
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.