Every crime in California is defined by a specific code section. Our attorneys explain the law, penalties and best defense strategies for every major crime in California.
In criminal cases, a pretrial hearing is a formal court hearing that takes place after the arraignment but before the jury trial. Most misdemeanor cases will have several pretrial hearings in which the parties will try to resolve the case and, if not, will organize the issues and set the case for trial.
These hearings give an accused the opportunity to:
There are various motions that can be filed at the pretrial hearing stage. Common examples are:
Pretrial discovery is the exchange of evidence between the prosecutor and the defense. Discovery exchanges take place at pretrial hearings.
Plea bargaining involves the prosecutor and defense attorney and takes place at pretrial hearings. Plea bargaining includes charge bargaining and sentence bargaining.
In general, pretrial hearings give both sides the chance to see how strong or weak a case is. If a case is weak the prosecutor will want to settle it. If a case is strong the accused will probably want to obtain the least possible punishment.
Please note that someone accused of a crime has the right to a speedy trial. This right is often waived to allow time for pretrial hearings.
One of the first things defense attorneys do is plan and file pretrial motions. Good pretrial motions attack and weaken a prosecutor’s case. A successful pretrial motion can help the accused to:
Pretrial motions try to:
The accused receives a copy of the complaint and police report at the arraignment. In many cases there will be additional evidence such as blood test results, accident reports, and medical records. A prosecutor must provide all relevant discovery to the accused. This production process is called pretrial discovery and includes:
The accused must likewise provide relevant discovery to the prosecutor. If the two sides disagree about whether something is relevant there must be a hearing.
Plea bargaining also takes place at pretrial hearings. Each year in California about 800,000 non-traffic misdemeanors are filed. 99% of those cases settle without going to jury trial.
Plea bargaining involves charge bargaining and sentence bargaining. In charge bargaining, the prosecutor agrees to dismiss or reduce charges in exchange for a guilty plea. In sentence bargaining, the sentence is negotiated.
Throughout the pretrial process the defense attorney evaluates the odds of succeeding at trial. Some of the things a defense attorney will consider when advising a client are:
The ultimate decision about whether to go to trial is made by the accused.
Please note that the trial court judge can limit the number of pretrial hearings. One way to do that is to order that a trial date be set. Continuances may still be granted but only for “good cause.” (See Penal Code 1050 PC)
Pretrial hearings and motion hearings both occur prior to trial. Motion hearings, however, address specific issues. Defense attorneys file motions for such reasons as:
In felony cases, the criminal defendant must be present at all court dates, including the preliminary hearing. (see our related page on What happens at a felony pretrial hearing? In most misdemeanor cases an attorney can make court appearances for the accused. If the charges involve domestic violence the accused must be present for sentencing. In some driving under the influence cases the accused may have to be present.
Some courts accept notarized pleas in misdemeanor cases. If they do the defendant gets a waiver and does not have to be present. An experienced attorney will know the pleading procedures at a specific courthouse.
Pretrial hearings are generally open to the public and anyone can attend. In California, crime victims have rights under the Victims’ Bill of Rights. A victim has the right to be notified if a prosecutor is going to settle a case. A notification request should be made to the prosecutor handling the case.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.
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