California’s “criminal court process” refers to how a criminal case proceeds, from
The process may differ slightly depending on if a person is charged with an
In any event, though, people exposed to the criminal process are entitled to certain rights, like the right to counsel, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to an impartial jury.
Infractions are violations of the law that are punishable by fines. Most California infractions are traffic violations (for example, speeding). People have the right to contest an infraction before a judge at a bench trial.
Misdemeanors and felonies are criminal offenses that are more serious than infractions. The criminal court process for both is largely the same and involves several individual proceedings. These may include:
- investigation and arrest,
- a pre-trial process (which may involve discovery, motions, and plea bargains), and
Felony cases may also include a preliminary hearing, which is held after an arraignment.
If a defendant pleads guilty to a charge, or receives a guilty verdict following a trial, then a criminal case will advance to a sentencing hearing. An accused can also file a motion for a new trial or an appeal following a conviction.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. What is the court process for infractions?
- 2. What is the criminal court process for a California misdemeanor?
- 3. What is the criminal court process for felonies?
- 4. What happens following a guilty plea or guilty verdict?
1. What is the court process for infractions?
While California infractions are violations of the law, they are not considered crimes (unlike misdemeanors and felonies). One result is a fairly straightforward court process that mainly includes a trial.
Most infractions are traffic violations. Examples include:
- speeding, per Vehicle Code 22350 VC,
- illegal U-turn, per Vehicle Code 22100.5 VC, and
- running a red light, per Vehicle Code 21453 VC.
Infractions do not lead to imprisonment or probation. Thus, a person charged with one does not have the right to a jury trial. Trials, rather, are “bench trials” that occur before a judge.
A person charged with an infraction can hire a defense attorney to assist in the matter. But the State is not required to appoint a public defender for representation.
Parties can try to contest or fight an infraction at trial with a legal defense. But if a person is found guilty, the offense is punishable by a fine. The maximum amount is $250.1
The State of California will also report the infraction to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The DMV will then place one or more points on the offender’s driving record.
2. What is the criminal court process for a California misdemeanor?
California misdemeanors involve a more structured court process in comparison to infractions. The process includes several steps, including:
- investigation and arrest,
- a pre-trial process, and
2.1. Legal definition of a misdemeanor
California law defines a misdemeanor as a crime for which the maximum sentence is no more than one year in county jail.2 A misdemeanor is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a felony.
Common examples of misdemeanors are:
- DUI, per Vehicle Code 23152a,
- Drug possession, per Health and Safety Code 11350 HS, and
- Drunk in public, per Penal Code 647f PC.
Many criminal cases begin with police witnessing a person allegedly breaking the law and then arresting that party. In other cases, the police suspect a person of criminal behavior only after conducting an investigation.
Criminal investigations typically include police interviewing witnesses and executing search warrants.
Sometimes police reach out to the suspect for questioning. If this happens, the suspect is advised to invoke his/her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and retain a criminal defense attorney on a pre-file basis. The attorney can then speak with law enforcement on his/her client’s behalf.
In some cases, the defense attorney can even persuade prosecutors to drop the investigation by showing them that insufficient evidence exists to arrest the suspect.
Once police arrest a person of a misdemeanor, they typically “book” or process the party. Booking means the police take the suspect to the police station and:
- gather fingerprints,
- record the suspect’s personal information (for example, name and address),
- take note of the facts involved in the alleged offense, and
- search the suspect’s criminal history.
The suspect is then either held in custody or released. If released, suspects are either released:
California bail and bail bonds refer to the money that is posted with the court to ensure that the defendant attends all of his/her court appearances. Bail is typically set according to the local county bail schedule.3 However, California bail laws provide an opportunity for the judge to reduce a scheduled bail.4
Note that it is a common misconception that police must read arrestees their Miranda Warnings immediately after an arrest. But arrestees do not need to hear Miranda Warnings until they are being interrogated (questioned by police). If an interrogation occurs, arrestees are advised to remain silent and let their attorney speak for them.
Following an arrest, the district attorney’s office determines whether or not to press charges. If the D.A. does not press charges, the case is dropped and the suspect if released from custody (if he/she was held in jail). If the D.A. files charges, the court will schedule an arraignment.
An arraignment is a defendant’s first formal court appearance following an arrest. It is essentially a hearing held in front of a judge.
The arraignment is where the court reads the defendant the charges that the D.A. has filed against him/her. The defendant then has the opportunity to enter a plea.5
The three most common pleas include:
- not guilty,
- guilty, or
- nolo contendere, more commonly referred to as “no contest”.6
If the defendant enters a guilty or “no contest” plea, the party proceeds directly to a sentencing hearing (discussed in section 4 below). If the defendant enters a “not guilty” plea, the judge addresses the issue of bail (if the defendant is confined in jail).
Note that a defendant has the right to an attorney at an arraignment. If the party cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one.
2.5. Pre-trial process
California’s pretrial process is the time in a criminal case from post arraignment to the moment right before a trial begins.
The process represents the timeframe where the majority of cases are resolved. For example, a prosecutor may dismiss a case or a defendant may enter into a plea bargain and advance to a criminal sentencing hearing.
The pre-trial process varies in terms of length. In some cases, it can last up to 45 days. The process can grow longer in more complex cases.
“Pretrial” refers to all proceedings that take place before a trial. This includes
- court appearances,
- discovery issues (that is, the exchange of relevant evidence),
- motion practice (a request by the defense or prosecution for the judge to take a desired action), and
- plea bargains or negotiations.
The discovery and motion aspect to the process usually bring the most questions.
“Discovery” is the term used to describe the exchange of information between the defense and the prosecution.
The purpose is for each side to learn what evidence the other will present during trial, including what witnesses will testify and the subject of their testimony.
Discovery may reveal:
- physical evidence relevant to the case,
- applicable police reports,
- expert reports or statements, and
- witness statements.
2.5.2. Motion practice
Motion practice refers to a prosecutor or defense counsel asking the court to make a certain ruling with respect to some aspect of a criminal case.
An example is a motion to suppress evidence. This is a request, often by the defense, for the judge to exclude certain evidence from a case. A defendant may bring this motion, for example, if the police obtained evidence via an illegal search and seizure.
Another popular pretrial motion is what’s known as a Pitchess motion. A California Pitchess motion is a request for information contained in an officer’s personnel file about prior complaints of:
- excessive force,
- bias, or
- other forms of police misconduct.7
If the judge grants a Pitches motion, the defendant could call those complainants as witnesses to taint the officer’s credibility. In reality, if the prosecutor learns of damaging information in a peace officer’s file, he/she will usually reduce or even dismiss one or more of the defendant’s charges.
Cases that do not resolve during pretrial proceedings progress into the trial phase of the California criminal court process.
Note that defendants have the constitutional right to a speedy trial, but may defendants opt to delay the trial for weeks or months.
California trials may be of two types. These are:
- bench trials, or
- jury trials.
Bench trials (also known as court trials) take place when the judge acts as both the judge and jury. In a jury trial, by contrast, 12 members of the community are selected to hear the evidence against the defendant, and they then decide whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.
Anyone in California accused of a misdemeanor has the right to a jury trial.8 A California jury trial typically proceeds as follows:
- jury selection,
- opening statements,
- attorneys present evidence,
- closing arguments,
- jury deliberations,
- verdict, and
- sentencing (if a guilty verdict).9
To secure a guilty verdict at trial, prosecutors have the burden to show that there is enough evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
3. What is the criminal court process for felonies?
The court process for felony offenses is similar to the process for misdemeanors. The process includes the following:
- investigation and arrest,
- preliminary hearing,
- second arraignment,
- pre-trial process, and
3.1. Legal definition of a felony
In California, a felony is defined as a crime that carries a maximum sentence of more than one year in custody.10 A judge may also impose a fine up to $10,000 in addition to, or instead of, imprisonment.11
Felony offenses are more serious than both misdemeanors and infractions. The most serious felonies can be punished by life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Examples of a felony include:
- murder, per Penal Code 187 PC,
- rape, per Penal Code 261 PC,
- sale of a controlled substance, per Health and Safety Code 11352 HS, and
- Vehicular manslaughter, per Penal Code 192(c) PC.
3.2. Investigation and arrest
The investigation and arrest steps for a California felony generally follow the same protocol as the investigation and arrest steps for misdemeanors.
Note, though, that since felonies are more serios crimes than misdemeanors, felony offenders are more likely to remain in custody after an arrest.
There are actually two arraignment hearings in the lifespan of a felony case. One occurs at the very start of criminal proceedings. The second happens after the preliminary hearing. For now, we’ll focus on the initial arraignment.
If a person is held in jail after a felony arrest, police and prosecutors must arraign the offender within 48 hours of arrest, not including weekends and holidays.12
If there is an unreasonable delay between an arrest and an arraignment, the delay can convert an otherwise lawful arrest into an unlawful detention. This type of potential police misconduct may entitle the offender to recover civil (or monetary) damages.
Note that the 48-hour rule discussed above applies to all crimes for which a suspect is held in custody, regardless of whether they are felonies or misdemeanors. That said, most defendants are released following a misdemeanor arrest.
If a felony offender gets released from custody following an arrest, the police must arraign the party “without unnecessary delay.” In reality, an arraignment usually takes place within a few weeks to a few months following an arrest.13
Like an arraignment for a misdemeanor, a felony arraignment is the defendant’s first formal court appearance following an arrest. The actual arraignment follows the same rules and procedures as discussed for misdemeanor arraignments.
3.4. Preliminary hearings
A California preliminary hearing is one of the first pretrial proceedings that take place in a felony case. The hearing is commonly referred to as a “prelim” or a “probable cause hearing.”
The hearing is held before a judge and the prosecutor must submit evidence related to the crime charged against the defendant.
The judge then asks two questions:
- is there probable cause to believe that a crime was committed, and
- if so, is there probable cause to believe that the defendant was the person who committed that crime.14
If the judge answers these questions in the affirmative, he/she transfers the case to a trial court for further pretrial proceedings. If a judge finds that there is not probable cause related to a charge, the judge can dismiss any charges against the accused.15
3.5. Second arraignment
If a judge finds probable cause following a preliminary hearing, the court must hold a second arraignment within 15 days of the hearing.
The arraignment largely follows the same procedures as the first arraignment. The defendant simply enters a plea as to those charges that a judge found probable cause to support.
3.6. Pre-trial process and trial
Both the pre-trial process and the trial stage of a felony case follow the same rules and protocols as discussed above for misdemeanor cases.
Since felony crimes are more serious than misdemeanors, felony trials can last much longer than those for misdemeanors.
4. What happens following a guilty plea or guilty verdict?
If a defendant pleads guilty to a misdemeanor or a felony, or is found guilty of either offense after a trial, California’s criminal process says that a defendant may:
- file a motion for a new trial,
- appear at a sentencing hearing, or
- file an appeal.
4.1. Motion for a new trial
California law says that a defendant may be entitled to a new trial if a guilty verdict was tainted by
- jury misconduct,
- prosecutorial misconduct,
- an error of law by the court, and/or
- insufficient evidence.16
A defendant can file a motion for a new trial on any of these grounds as long as he/she files the motion before the judge pronounces judgment (which is usually done at a California sentencing hearing).
If granted, the defendant begins the new trial with a completely clean slate as if no trial had ever taken place.17
4.2. Sentencing hearing
California law entitles a defendant to a sentencing hearing after a conviction or guilty plea.
A sentencing hearing presents both the prosecutor and the defendant with an opportunity to explain to the judge what each feels is an appropriate sentence.18
The defense presents mitigating circumstances to justify lenient treatment. Conversely, the prosecution presents aggravating circumstances to justify harsher penalties. Misdemeanor cases carry fines and county jail time, while felony cases carry fines and state prison time.
People convicted of a crime can appeal their verdict to a new higher court.
An appeal is not a new trial. Instead, an appellate judge reviews the trial court’s decision for mistakes. Common grounds for appeal include:
- insufficient evidence,
- jury misconduct,
- prosecutorial misconduct,
- judicial misconduct, and
- ineffective assistance of counsel.
The appellate court can either affirm the verdict of the trial court, or overturn the verdict and remand it to the trial court for new proceedings.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with one of our criminal defense attorneys, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
- California Penal Code 19.8 PC.
- California Penal Code 19 PC.
- California Penal Code 1269b PC.
- Note that people can no longer be incarcerated solely because they cannot afford bail. Clear and convincing evidence is required to show that detention is necessary to protect public safety. See, for example, In Re. Kenneth Humphrey on Habeas Corpus, (March 25, 2021).
- California Penal Code 825 PC.
- California Penal Code 1016 PC.
- See, for example, California Evidence Code sections 1043-1047 and Pitchess v. Superior Court, 11 Cal.3d 531 (1974).
- The right to a California jury trial is guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, by the California Constitution Article 1, sections 16 and 24, and by various California statutory provisions.
- California Penal Code 1093 PC.
- California Penal Code 17a PC.
- California Penal Code 672 PC.
- California Penal Code 825 PC.
- California Penal Code 859 PC.
- California Penal Code 872 PC.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 1181 PC.
- California Penal Code 1180 PC.
- California Penal Code 1170 PC.