IF YOU HAVE BEEN ARRESTED IN FRESNO, MADERA KINGS OR TULARE COUNTY... WHAT HAPPENS IN COURT?
This is the first court appearance for any misdemeanor or felony. Once arrested and charged with a crime or DUI, the defendant appears in Court for arraignment. At arraignment, the defendant is told what crime he or she is charged with, and is advised of his constitutional rights to a jury or court trial, appointed attorney, presumption of innocence, etc. The charging document is called a Complaint. The conditions and amount of bail are determined. In some cases, generally based on the nature of the charge, the Judge imposes conditions on bail, such as “no contact” with the victim. Bail is set in almost every case, but it is up to the defendant's own resources to post the bail money, which allows him to be released. Typically bail bonds companies will give a discount to defendants who have a private attorney, so contact and hire an attorney first. Further, an attorney maybe able to arrange for a defendant's release without bail, such as on O.R. (own Recognizance) saving a lot of money. All further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor:
At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge: plead guilty or plead not guilty. If he or she pleads guilty or no contest, the judge may sentence him or her on the spot, or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date, which will give the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence report including background information about the defendant and the crime, make a sentencing recommendation, etc. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference.
• Pretrial Proceedings
Many events can occur prior to trial. There are case discussions involving the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. The focus is on possibly resolving the case short of trial. Depending on the nature of the case, there may be pre-trial hearings on Constitutional issues (confessions, searches, identification, etc.). The issues are presented to the Court through written “motions” (e.g., Motion to Suppress Evidence, etc.). The judge must determine whether evidence will be admitted or suppressed at the defendant's trial, whether there is some legal reason why the defendant should not be tried, or decide other ground rules for trial.
At a felony arraignment, the defendant enters a plea to the charge, guilty or not guilty. He or she is advised of their right to a preliminary hearing within 10 days of the arraignment.
• Preliminary Hearing
This is a hearing before a Judge, sometimes called a “probable cause hearing”. The District Attorney/prosecutor presents witnesses to convince the Judge that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant likely committed the crime. Because the burden of proof is much less than at a trial, the prosecutor generally does not call all potential witnesses to testify at the “prelim”. The defendant's attorney, can cross examine the witnesses, and can present their own evidence, including witnesses. If probable cause is established, the defendant is “bound over” for trial. If the Judge decides that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, the charge can be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor for trial. A defendant can decide not to have a Preliminary Examination and waive their right to have the hearing.
After the case is “bound over” for a felony trial, the defendant is again arraigned, given formal notice of the charges against them. The charging document is called an “Information”. He or she is again advised of his or her constitutional rights, and enters a plea to the charge, guilty or not guilty.
• Pretrial Proceedings
As with misdemeanors, the Judge is called upon to resolve various pre-trial issues, some of which determine whether the case will continue to a trial, be resolved with a plea, or be dismissed.
A trial is an adversary proceeding in which the prosecutor must present evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor calls all the witnesses necessary to prove the crime. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence or to present any evidence, but may challenge the accuracy of the prosecutor's evidence. Both the defendant and the prosecutor have the right to a trial by a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury; this is called a “court trial”. In a jury trial, the jury is the “trier of fact”; in a court trial, the judge is. After the evidence is presented, the judge or a jury will determine whether the evidence proved that the defendant committed the crime.
• Pre-Sentence Investigation and Report
The probation department prepares a report for the judge summarizing the crime, and the defendant's personal and criminal backgrounds. Generally, the victim is contacted for a recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report with a recommended sentence.
Sentencing in California varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the criminal process. Most often, sentences are at the judge's discretion. At the time of sentencing, the judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report before determining the sentence. The parties may correct factual errors in the pre-sentence report and offer additional evidence relevant to the judge's sentencing decision. The judge will consult the “sentencing guidelines” in the California Rules of Court to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. The judge may consider different alternatives, such as a fine, probation, community service, a sentence to jail or prison, or a combination of those alternatives.
The help of a good lawyer is critical in limiting the damage that a criminal or DUI case can have on your family, your life and your livelihood. Of course a good lawyer can minimize the penalties such as jail, fines and license suspension or revocation.
David E. Jones is a former Deputy District Attorney and a highly skilled DUI/DWI and criminal defense lawyer with more than 20 years of experience helping clients who are facing State and Federal criminal charges.