Being accused of an infraction can be an upsetting experience. Previously, many traffic and other charges were crimes. The legislature has decriminalized many traffic, parks, wildlife, and fisheries offenses. These offenses are now called infractions and are civil cases. If you pay a penalty, mitigate, or if a judge finds you have committed a traffic infraction at a contested hearing, the state law requires that the infraction be reported to the Department of Licensing. The infraction will then appear on your driving record. Neither the court clerk nor the judge has the authority to keep the infraction off your record. If you win at a contested hearing and the infraction is dismissed, it is not reported to the Department of Licensing and will not appear on your driving record.
When you are charged with a crime, the first step in criminal proceedings is the arrest. After you are arrested, you will be given a date of arraignment. The arraignment date is dependent on the date of your arrest, and is usually scheduled within a few weeks. For all crimes, misdemeanor or otherwise, your arraignment is your first appearance in court. During the time between the arrest and the arraignment, the prosecutor will review what transpired based upon the police report, and after his or her review, will then form charges to bring against you based upon what happened.
The First Step
At the arraignment hearing you will be asked to wait until your name is called. You will be with a number of other defendants awaiting their arraignments or other pretrial hearings. Once you are called in front of the judge, he or she will inform you of a few things:
- Charges: The judge will inform you of the charges being brought against you, and the potential punishments.
- Right to an Attorney: The judge will then tell you that you have a right to an attorney. If you have selected one, he or she should be present with you and inform the judge of their representation at this time. If you do not have enough money or are under certain circumstances that prevent you from obtaining a lawyer, the court can appoint a lawyer for you to represent you in court.
The next step in the arraignment process is the plea. This is where a defendant can choose to stop court proceedings or, continue further on to a trial or plea bargaining. A defendant can enter one of three pleas:
- Not Guilty: A plea of “not guilty” signifies that the defendant does not admit to committing the crimes listed in the charges. If this plea is entered, the case will either move forward to trial, or you and your attorney can move to attempt to plea bargain or to “strike a deal” with the prosecutor for lower charges or dismissed charges, depending on the situation
- Guilty: A plea of “guilty” signifies that the defendant admits to committing the crime and accepts the charges and punishments against him. Guilty pleas at the first arraignment hearing are uncommon; it is more common to enter a guilty plea to less severe or reduced charges after you or your attorney speaks with the prosecutor.
- No Contest: A “no contest” or “nolo contendere” plea is, essentially, a guilty plea. It signifies that the defendant does not disagree with the charges against him or her. However, the advantage of entering a no contest plea is that the conviction cannot be brought against the defendant in a lawsuit for a civil trial. It is common to see this plea in traffic court or after plea bargaining.
After the arraignment, depending on the judge, if you were held in jail you may be released or there may be a bail amount set for your release.
PreTrial Motions & Hearings (Discovery, Pitchess, Suppression)
Discovery is the exchange of information relevant to the case between the prosecution and the defense. Each side will be able to see what evidence is being gathered and what method of defense will be employed. In some cases, this may be the only way for a defendant to review the information included on the actual police report the prosecution is using. While it may seem like bad news that your attorney has to reveal what defense strategy will be used, discovery is actually vital to putting up a good defense against the prosecution.
Motion to Suppress Evidence
At times, overzealous and unwarranted police action can result in evidence being obtained against you that is not relevant to the case, that is obtained illegally, or that should not have been obtained in the first place. When this happens, your lawyer can file a motion to suppress the evidence that was obtained in this manner. Often times, this motion can be written and sent to the court. However, at times your lawyer and the prosecution may need to have a suppression hearing in front of the judge to determine the next proper course of action. The judge makes the final ruling in these hearings. If your lawyer is successful in suppressing evidence, you may see different charges, or the prosecution may not be able to hold a case.
Motion for Dismissal
A motion for dismissal is a tactic your lawyer can employ to get the court to dismiss the charges completely. This is often used when a suppression motion removes key evidence, or when the pre-trial proceedings have been delayed, effectively delaying the trial. On top of this, the prosecutor may choose to dismiss charges based upon further plea bargaining or examination of the case. Once dismissed, you are free to go and move straight on to the expungement process.
Continued Plea Bargaining
During this time period, your attorney can also continue to plea bargain with the prosecutor. In certain circumstances, you may be looking at reduced charges if an agreement is reached,If so, a guilty or no contest plea may put things in your favor. Remember: a trial can be a long, grueling, and expensive process for you, for the courts, and prosecutors. The prosecution may want to avoid letting a trial take place and can possibly settle for lower, or dismissed, charges if the situation continues.
Your lawyer will prepare you for the trial process. There are several steps for preparation.
For a trial to take place, the courts must obtain a jury. Your lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge will be present for jury selection. The goal of jury selection is the have a group of people that will deliberate fairly and impartially on your case. The lawyers are present because they have the ability to reject certain jurors that they feel will not judge your case and its facts without prejudice. Both sides can “challenge” to remove jurors either “for cause,” meaning that they have a valid reason to remove the juror, or make their challenge “peremptory” meaning that they do not need to prove a cause or reason for removing the juror. Once a jury is put together the trial can begin.
- Opening Statements: Each side will deliver their opening statements, they tell the jury how they will structure their case, and what evidence they will see over the course of the trial.
- Evidence and Testimony: During this time, evidence and witness testimony will be presented, and each side will have a chance to examine and cross-examine each witness or piece of evidence.
- Closing Arguments: Finally, each side will deliver their closing arguments to the jury. Effectively tying the case together and putting the evidence, witness testimony, and events of the trial into a summary that speaks to the jury in an effort to convince them to serve the desired verdict. The prosecution will rely on showing that a crime was committed and the law was broken. Your defense will focus on casting reasonable doubt on the events, as well as try to show that the prosecution is unable to prove the crime was even committed.
- Deliberation: After the closing arguments are heard, the jury will then go to a deliberation room, where they will privately discuss the matters of the case to reach a unanimous verdict of either “guilty” or “not guilty.” Remember, you must be found guilty beyond the standard of reasonable doubt, and it must be unanimous. If any single juror dissents in a guilty verdict they must all continue to deliberate.
- Verdict: Finally, after deliberation, your verdict will be served. If you are found “not guilty” you are free to go and you cannot be tried for that same crime again. If you are found “guilty” then you will proceed to sentencing. You can also request to appeal your case in an appellate court.
The court of law can be foreboding and intimidating for anyone facing criminal charges. If you are facing criminal charges and you are in need of a lawyer, contact us today.
All criminal justice proceedings begin at the arrest. However, suppose you have been charged with a serious crime. Felony charges may land you in a county or your municipality’s jail. Under California law, because of your right to a speedy trial, you must be arraigned within 48-hours of your detention, not including counting non-business days, such as holidays or weekends, or times when the court has to close. At the initial arraignment, things will proceed the exact same as arraignments for any other crime.
Entering a Plea
The judge will read you your charges, advise you of the consequences of those charges, and advise you of your right to an attorney. If you need time to seek a private attorney, you should advise the judge. If you cannot afford a private attorney of your own, you can ask that the court appoint a public defender for you. If your attorney is with you at this time, he or she can claim representation for you. You will also be able to enter in you plea at this time. You can enter one of the following pleas:
- Guilty: Pleading guilty to your charges means that you admit to committing the crime and accept the sentencing and punishments attached. It is not very common for defendants to enter a guilty plea at their initial arraignment. For felony charges be sure to get a lawyer before even considering entering a guilty plea.
- Not Guilty: Pleading not guilty to your charges means you do admit to committing the crime. If you are seeking legal counsel this is the first step in both plea-bargaining and going to trial. If you have a lawyer he or she will have the opportunity to speak with the prosecutor after you enter your plea. Speaking with the prosecutor can allow you to “strike a deal” for lower charges.
- No Contest: A plea of “no contest” essentially works the same way as a guilty plea. It means you do not disagree with the charges against you. However, this also means that your conviction on these charges cannot be used against you in civil court.
Felony crimes often result in the detention of the defendant. After a plea is entered you will either be released or you will have to post bail. The judge will set your bail amount based upon the crime, any danger you may pose to the community, and the overall risk of you leaving the state. If you must be detained, and do not post bail, law enforcement will bring you to and from the hearing. Felony charges carry much more serious consequences than any misdemeanor charges. They have the ability to affect your life for years to come. Because of this is, it is advisable to obtain an experienced defense attorney if you are facing any felony charges.
After the arraignment, you will be required to attend a hearing called the Preliminary Hearing. The purpose of the hearing is for the judge to determine if there is sufficient evidence that the defendant committed the felony to “hold the defendant over” for a trial to take place. Think of this as a miniature trial. In the Preliminary Hearing, the prosecutor will be using evidence and witnesses to prove that there is probable cause to hold you on trial for the crime. The preliminary hearing can either take place directly after your first arraignment hearing, or if you waive your right to a speedy hearing, up to a few weeks afterward.
Burden of Proof
At the preliminary hearing, you are not on trial for your crime. The prosecutor is charged with the burden of adequately demonstrating there is probable cause you could have committed the crime. This means, that instead of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor will be trying to prove that there is a reasonable possibility that a crime was committed and you are the one responsible. The prosecutor is also responsible for showing probable cause for any prior convictions they wish to factor in, any enhancements or aggravating circumstances to the crime, and any other relevant items that could affect your charges. Similarly, the judge must ascertain whether or not there is valid reason to move forward to a trial. The judge can either move forward with the trial, or if the prosecutor cannot prove sufficient probable cause, can dismiss the entire case altogether. The judge can also reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor charge if he or she deems it necessary.
During the preliminary hearing, your attorney can put up as much of a defense for you as he or she could in a normal trial. Your lawyer is welcome to cross examine witnesses, show evidence, and exercise a variety of motions. Your lawyer can move to suppress certain items of evidence, whether they have been obtained illegally or if they are not pertinent to the trial. He or she can also move to dismiss the charges if there is not sufficient cause for there to be a trial.
Another motion that may come into good use during a preliminary hearing is the Pitchess motion, which calls into question the history of any misconduct of the officer that performed the arrest. Discovery may also be performed at this preliminary hearing. This enables your attorney to better prepare for the full trial, or allows him or her to bolster a stronger defense at the preliminary hearing.
When you are being charged with a felony, you will have to undergo a preliminary hearing. If the judge determines at that time that there is sufficient evidence and probable cause to hold you for trial, you will be required to go to a second arraignment for your charges. After the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor will file what is called the “Information.” Information is a grand list of the charges in which the judge has found probable cause. Next, you will have an arraignment on the Information. This arraignment will be set within 15 days following the preliminary hearing.
Arraignment on the Information
Now that your charges have been formalized and the judge has deemed that the court will hold a case against you, you are going to face the judge with the confirmed charges. The judge will again read your charges, and inform you of your rights. At this point you will likely have legal representation with you, and your lawyer will advise you of the next steps to be taken.
Similar to the initial arraignment, you will be given the chance to enter a plea in court. However, the arraignment on the Information means that whatever charges are listed are felony charges, and carry stricter penalties and associations. At an arraignment on the Information, you can enter a plea of:
- Guilty: If you have bargained and/or had some of the charges dropped or dismissed from the preliminary hearing, your lawyer may advise you to enter a “guilty” plea and accept the reduced sentencing. Again, since these are felony charges you may want to refrain from entering a guilty plea right away and order to discuss options with the prosecutor.
- Not Guilty: Entering a plea of “not guilty” for you arraignment on the Information will likely mean that you and your lawyer are going to attempt to bring the case to trial. This plea can also be used to further extend plea bargaining if possible. If you decide to bring the case to trial, the trial will take place within 60 days. You may also waive your right to a speedy trial if you and your lawyer feel that more time to prepare is necessary. If you choose to do this, you will want to have a date in mind beyond those 60 days. Additional, if no courts are available on the day you choose, the trial may be postponed further.
- No Contest: As with the original arraignment, a plea of “no contest” will mean the same thing as pleading guilty, again with the caveat that your conviction cannot be brought against you in civil court.
Bear in mind, in certain situations, you may need to confirm your trial. If this is the case, a trial confirmation means that you and your attorney have determined that the case cannot settle without a trial upon hearing what the prosecution has offered to settle the case. If you are without an attorney at this point, it is strongly recommended that you seek legal counsel immediately as the courtroom can become a confusing and unfriendly place the closer you get to trial.
PreTrial Motions & Hearings (Discovery, Pitchess, Suppression)
Aside from any actions taken at the preliminary hearing, your lawyer can employ a number of potential motions for your case before the trial begins. If you have confirmed your trial date, your lawyer will already be in motion to put together preparations to strengthen your defense for the trial. When facing felony charges in a trial, preparation is absolutely the key element that separates a weak defense from a strong one.
This is most often handled at the preliminary hearing, however, if your attorney needs items from the prosecutor to bolster your defense, you may see some discovery processes during the pretrial period.
There are times when an overzealous or misguided officer will attempt to obtain evidence in a manner that does not comply with 4th Amendment rights. Evidence could be obtained without a warrant, obtained outside of the terms of the warrant, or obtained without probable cause. These pieces of evidence can be taken out of the case before the trial even begins through what’s called “a motion to suppress evidence.” Sometimes key pieces of evidence that are taken out of court can be cause for a dismissal of charges. If a prosecutor loses a key piece of evidence for some of the charges he or she is holding against you, he or she may choose to drop certain charges, or reduce the severity of the charges. Suppression motions are typically handled in writing, however, they sometimes go to a hearing, where the judge will make a determination.
Your lawyer can also make a motion for the dismissal of the charges against you due to invalidity. This is possible after the preliminary hearing, or after a suppression motion is approved. If the judge approves, some or all of your charges can be dropped or changed.
The Pitchess motion calls into question the conduct of the officer who performed your arrest. If the arrest was done with malice, and the officer has a history of brutal actions or misconduct, you may see the charges leveled against you rendered as invalid. This is a common motion for people who are victims of racial profiling, predatory policing, excessive force, evidence planting and entrapment. A Pitchess motion typically calls for a hearing between the judge and the officer in question. After the hearing, any relevant files will be released to the prosecution and your attorney.
A Serna motion is used to suggest a dismissal of charges based upon a violation of your right to speedy trial. If you spend a considerable amount of time between your arrest and your arraignment or trial your lawyer may want to argue that the delay was unconstitutional. This motion can also be used if the prosecutor deliberately delayed your case and especially if the effects of the delay were to the detriment of your defense.
While these motions are going on, it is also possible for plea bargaining to continue. The prosecutor may offer reduced sentencing and charges if any of your attorney’s motions are successful.
When the time for felony trial comes, the process will work the same as the misdemeanor once all pretrial motions and hearing are settled. After both the prosecution and the defense have confirmed their trial readiness, and exhausted all plea bargaining options, they can confirm the trial and it will be held on the agreed upon date. The trial process can be confusing and frightening for people who are not regularly involved in courtroom procedures. For people facing felony charges, this can be even more frightening as a felony conviction most often means jail time.
Before the trial can even begin, the defense, the prosecution, and the judge must gather to select a jury to hold the trial with. Jury selection is a long process that involves both sides and the judge asking questions and making motions to either keep or remove potential jurors based on their perceived ability to make impartial and fair decisions. The process of jury selection is known as voir dire. During voir dire attorneys from both sides can reject jurors by issuing what is called a “challenge,” challenges come in two forms:
- For Cause: A challenge for cause is the motion to remove a juror based on a reason provided by the attorney. The judge makes the decision as to whether this cause is valid.
- Peremptory: A peremptory challenge is the motion to remove a juror without valid reason, or with no reason given. Each side only has a limited number of these to use.
After the jury has been selected the trial will begin. The trial itself is a multi-step process that encompasses several elements and procedures.
- Opening Statements: The first step to a trial is the presentation of opening statements from both sides. The opening statement is a brief overview of how each side will present their findings and evidence. In their opening statements neither side is allowed to perform any actual arguments, and instead they are to outline what they will attempt to show the jury.
- Witness Testimonies and Evidence Presentation: This is the meat of the trial. Each side will present evidence and witness testimony, and the opposing side will have the opportunity to cross-examine each item presented. You and your attorney will likely be prepared for what will be on the stand because of pretrial proceedings and discovery.
- Closing Arguments: The closing arguments are a summary and argument of each side. For the defense, this is their final chance to reach the jury before they deliberate. It is important to build a good case, but also important to stitch it all together will a good closing statement.
- Jury Deliberation: After the case is heard, the jury will deliberate and determine whether you are “guilty” or “not guilty.” They will all vote upon your sentence, and you must be convicted both unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Verdict and Sentencing: Once your verdict has been served, if you are found “not guilty” you are free to go, however if you are found “guilty” the judge will sentence you to whatever punishment was deemed fit for the crime.