Misdemeanors and Felonies
Misdemeanor crimes are punishable by a maximum term of incarceration in the county jail of one year or less. Some examples of misdemeanor violations include petty theft, vandalism, driving under the influence (with 2 or less prior convictions), and possession of controlled substances for personal use without a prescription.
The processing of a misdemeanor case usually proceeds in the following order:
- An arrest is made or a citation is issued without an arrest. When given a citation, it is required to be signed and a signature is a promise to appear in court on a particular court date. Signing a citation is not an admission of guilt, it is merely a promise to show up for court. If arrested, there is a right to reasonable bail (often determined by the county and memorialized in a bail schedule). An arrestee will either post bail or be released with a promise to appear (similar to a citation, this is a signed agreement to appear in court on a particular date). After an arrest (or issuance of a citation), the police write a report which is then submitted to the District Attorney (prosecutor) to review and either reject a case (which is a dismissal) or formally file charges based on the information contained in the police report. This report is supposed to be based on a full and complete investigation by an officer, and include witness statements and any other information the arresting or investigating officer believes is relevant. If released on a promise to appear (also called a release on your own recognizance) is not an option and a person cannot afford to post bail, a defendant with criminal charges must be seen by a judge or magistrate within 48 hours (not including weekends and holidays) of being taken into custody. This can only be extended by the police filing a separate certificate of probable cause for a 72 hour hold. Without this, a person must be released from custody.
- The first court appearance is called an arraignment, and at an arraignment the following events occur:
- The defendant is informed of the charges against him or her.
- The defendant is informed of his or her constitutional rights (to have a trial by jury, to confront and cross examine witnesses, to remain silent, and to be represented by an attorney) *If the defendant cannot afford an attorney of his or her own choice, an attorney is appointed by the Court.
- A plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest is usually entered at this court date. (No contest means the charge is not contested. A no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea but cannot be used against a defendant in a later civil lawsuit arising out of the same circumstances.)
A not guilty plea does not necessarily mean the defendant cannot later change the plea to guilty and admit responsibility; it is necessary to proceed with a not guilty plea in order to move the case along to the next phase.
Between the arraignment and actual an actual jury or court trial are court dates referred to as pretrial conferences or status conferences. At these court dates there is normally an exchange of information between the prosecution and the defense known as discovery. Pretrial motions may also be filed before the start of the trial. Motions may be made to dismiss the charges, suppress the evidence, compel one side or the other to turn over certain discovery such as medical records or police officer personnel records, etc. At any point during this time plea negotiations are often discussed and a settlement may be reached.
If efforts to resolve a case are unsuccessful, a misdemeanor case will proceed straight to trial. A defendant in California has a right to a trial before a jury of 12 peers, or can elect to waive a jury and have a trial before only a judge of the Superior Court. Time requirements for beginning a trial or set by statute and may differ in other states. In California, if a defendant is in custody, a jury or court trial must begin within 30 calendar days of the arraignment if time is not waived. If a defendant is out of custody, the trial must begin within 45 calendar days.
The pace of a trial is dependent on many different factors and differs in every case depending on the number of charges and the elements of each crime and how many witnesses will testify.
Once a jury is selected, the prosecution presents their evidence, the defense presents their evidence, and the prosecution again has the opportunity to present any additional evidence in rebuttal. The prosecution goes first and last because they have the obligation of attempting to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury deliberates and determines whether or not the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, he or she is released and cannot be tried again for the same crime. If the defendant is found guilty, the case can be continued for sentencing or sometimes the judge will sentence a defendant immediately. A defendant has the right to appeal a conviction to the Appellate Department of the Superior Court. A notice of appeal in a misdemeanor case must be filed within 30 days of entry of the conviction or the right to appeal is waived.
Felony crimes are punishable by a state prison term or death. State prison terms can be determinate (such as four years) or indeterminate (such as 25 years to life) depending on the severity of the charges and a defendant’s criminal record. Most felonies in California have a sentencing range of three choices, called a triad. The most common triad, and unless otherwise specifically stated, is a range from 16 months, two years or three years which a judge chooses when imposing sentence.
Felonies proceed in generally the same manner as misdemeanors with a few very important exceptions.
By statute, once a defendant is arraigned, an important decision is made about whether or not to waive time to have a preliminary hearing. This hearing is a probable cause determination by a judge as to whether or not there is sufficient evidence for a case to proceed to trial. This hearing must be held within 10 court days (excluding weekends and holidays) and no later than 60 calendar days of the entry of a plea of not guilty unless these time requirements are waived. For more serious cases, even if a defendant remains in custody, it is generally advised to waive time to conduct any further investigation and interview witnesses.
If a judge makes a ruling at the preliminary hearing that there is sufficient evidence for a case to proceed on to trial, this is called a holding order, or being bound over for a trial, and a prosecutor has 15 days within which to file an Information, which is basically the complaint upon which a trial by jury or court will proceed. A new arraignment on the Information must be held, at which time a defendant has a right to be brought to trial within 60 days unless that time requirement is waived.
It is also important to note that if a judge makes a finding that there is not enough evidence for a case to proceed to trial and discharges a defendant on the complaint, the prosecution can still refile those same charges one more time. Jeopardy doesn’t attach until a jury has been empaneled.
Once a trial is completed, as in with a misdemeanor case, a defendant is found either guilty or not guilty. If the decision is not guilty, a defendant is discharged and the case cannot be tried again.
If the defendant is found guilty of felony charges, it is common practice for sentencing to be continued so a probation report can be prepared so that the probation department can make recommendations for a judge regarding the appropriate sentence that should be imposed. A sentencing hearing must be held within 20 court days of a plea or a verdict unless that time requirement is waived. A felony conviction may be appealed to the District Court presiding over the Superior Court, and a request for an appeal must be filed within 60 calendar days or it is waived.