Steps in a Criminal Case

  • Crime Committed
  • Crime Reported
  • Police Investigate

Investigation may include interviewing victim, witnesses, and suspects; collecting physical evidence; visiting, viewing, photographing, and measuring crime scene; identifying suspects through line-ups, etc.

  • Police May Make an Arrest/May Request a Warrant

When a crime is committed in a police officer’s presence, or an officer has probable cause to believe that certain misdemeanors or felony was committed that he/she did not see happen, an officer may arrest a suspect on the spot without an arrest warrant. The officer will later submit a charging/warrant request to the District Attorney’s Office, suggesting potential charges to be authorized.

  • The District Attorney’s Office Reviews the Case

This is generally the first time that a prosecutor is involved in a case. At this stage, the prosecutor determines whether a person should be charged with a crime and, if so, what the crime should be. The prosecutor thoroughly reviews all reports and records concerning the case, including witness statements. The prosecutor also reviews the suspect’s prior criminal or traffic record. The criminal case is either charged or declined. Occasionally, the reviewing prosecutor sends the case back to the police to conduct additional investigation.

  • Criminal Charges Are Issued or Declined

The prosecutor may file a charge if he reasonably believes that there is probable cause that the suspect committed the offense, and he/she reasonably believes the charge can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial with the information known at that time. If a case is charged, the prosecutor issues a criminal complaint charging the suspect with committing a felony, misdemeanor, or both.

  • Suspect Arrested (if not already in custody), a Warrant is Issued or Suspect is Sent a Notice to Appear in Court

The delay between the crime date and the defendant’s arrest on an authorized charge can take any length of time (e.g., if the defendant’s whereabouts are unknown, or if he/she has left California).

  • Arraignment

This is the first court appearance for any misdemeanor or felony. Once arrested and charged with a felony, the suspect appears in court for arraignment. At arraignment, the defendant is told what crime he or she is charged with, and is advised of their 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 them to be released. All further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor:

  • Misdemeanor

At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge of either guilty, not guilty, or stand mute (i.e., remain silent, which is treated by the court as if the defendant pled not guilty). If he or she pleads guilty or no contest, the judge may sentence them on the spot, or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date. This gives 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 stands mute or 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.

  • Felony

At a felony arraignment, the defendant enters a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty, stand mute). He or she is advised of their right to a preliminary examination within 14 days of the arraignment. If the defendant requests a court-appointed attorney, the court will review that request at the time of the arraignment.

  • Preliminary Hearing

This is a contested hearing before a judge, sometimes called a “probable cause hearing.” The prosecutor presents witnesses to convince the judge that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant 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”; generally, the victim and some eye witnesses plus some of the police witnesses may testify. The defendant has an 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 in court. A defendant can decide not to have a preliminary examination.

  • Arraignment

After the case is “bound over” for a felony trial, the defendant is again arraigned (given formal notice of the charges against him or her). The charging document is called the Information. He or she is again advised of his or her constitutional rights, and enters a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty, stand mute).

  • 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.

  • Trial (Judge or Jury)

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 necessary witnesses 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 (representing the People of the State of California) 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 the “trier of fact.” 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 background. Generally, the victim is contacted for a recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report with a recommended sentence.

  • Sentencing

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 (established as a reference for framing an appropriate sentence throughout the state, considering factors of the crime, and the defendant’s criminal background) 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. The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm. 

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