California crimes are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. A felony is the most serious of the three and is punishable by more than one year in prison.
Being charged with a felony can be a confusing time in one’s life. As a dedicated defense attorney, my hope is that this brief overview of how a felony case moves through the San Diego County criminal justice system will reduce some of the inherent confusion one may be feeling.
There are five basic court dates in a felony case up through trial. However, there can be more, or less, depending on how the case plays itself out. Unlike in most misdemeanor cases where defendants needn’t personally attend all the court dates, defendants in felony cases must personally attend every court date.
This is the first court appearance. Typically, six things will happen at this hearing:
- Defendant is advised of her constitutional rights.
- Counsel is appointed.
- Defendant is provided with a copy of the complaint.
- Defendant is invited to enter a plea to the charges.
- Bail is determined, which may be different than the presumptive bail amount, or defendant may be released on her own recognizance.
- A date for the defendant’s next court appearance is set.
FIRST READINESS CONFERENCE
It’s at this conference that defense counsel and the district attorney begin to weigh and assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of their cases. Ordinarily, this is your defense attorney’s first opportunity to discuss the case with the district attorney and begin the negotiation process, which, under the right circumstances, could lead to a favorable plea bargain.
A preliminary hearing is a defendant’s opportunity to have a judge review the evidence against her and to weed out unmeritorious charges. If you’re out of custody, it’s usually a good idea to set this hearing out as far as possible to allow your defense attorney time to attempt to settle the case and/or adequately prepare for the preliminary hearing.
At the preliminary hearing (commonly referred to as the “prelim”), the prosecution must show that there is a strong suspicion that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is probably guilty of that crime. This evidentiary standard is relatively easy to meet, and is far less than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard used at trial.
If the magistrate finds that the prosecution has met its very low burden of proof, the defendant will be “bound over” on the complaint. In other words, the defendant is held to answer to the charge or charges against her. Once this occurs, the complaint is deemed to be an information (which is the functional equivalent of a grand jury indictment). The defendant is then arraigned on the information, just as she’d been arraigned on the complaint at the first court date.
SECOND (PRETRIAL) READINESS CONFERENCE
Usually the readiness conference is set out 30-45 days past the second arraignment. If you can’t settle your case at this readiness conference, your case is probably headed for trial. Trial usually takes place a few weeks after this conference.
At the pretrial hearing, the parties may again discuss settlement of the case, discuss possible discovery issues, and make other motions, such as a 995, 1538.5, or Pitchess motion. If any pre-trial motions are filed, hearings on those issues will be take place before the trial.
The final court date is the jury trial. There will usually be 12 jurors and 2 alternates. In some cases, a jury trial is waived and the defendant is tried before the judge only; this is called a “bench trial.”
There are six basic parts to a jury trial:
- Voir Dire – Jury Selection;
- Opening Statements – Prosecution then Defense;
- Presentation of Evidence (prosecution’s case in chief; defense’s case in chief)
- Closing Arguments – Prosecution, Defense, Prosecution’s Rebuttal
- Jury Deliberation