The Criminal Process

The criminal process can be confusing and intimidating for many people. The attorneys at the Weinrieb Law Firm believe it is our responsibility to not only provide excellent legal representation to our clients, but to help our clients understand the legal process and steps ahead so each client can best participate in making informed decisions about their representation and strategy. An important part of this understanding is familiarity with the three different categories of criminal violations, the legal process that applies to each category, and the potential consequences that may result.

The three categories of criminal violations in California are:

INFRACTIONS
MISDEMEANORS
FELONIES

Infractions

Infractions are crimes that are not punishable by imprisonment. A person charged with an infraction is not entitled to be represented by Court-appointed public counsel (e.g. a public defender) unless they are being held in custody.

Common examples of infractions:

  • Speeding tickets
  • Driving without a license
  • Speaking on a handheld cell phone while driving
  • Other moving violations
  • Citations for disturbing the peace.

Typically, a person cited for an infraction does not have to appear in Court and the matter can be handled directly with the Clerk's Office in-person, on-line, by telephone or by mail. A person can, however, choose to appear in Court to challenge an infraction citation and proceed to a trial before a judge. Infractions, unlike misdemeanors and felonies, do not allow for a jury trial.

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Misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are crimes that are generally punishable by a maximum fine of $1000 and/or a county jail term of one year.

Common examples of misdemeanors:

  • Petty theft
  • Simple assault and battery
  • Marijuana possession
  • Some domestic violence charges
  • Prostitution
  • Driving under the influence charges

While every misdemeanor case follows its own path through the law enforcement and legal system, the following events, in general, are typical when someone is alleged to have committed a misdemeanor:

  1. Arrest - When a person is accused of a misdemeanor they will be arrested and held by law enforcement. When this occurs, three things may happen:
    • No charges are filed and the person is released;
    • The person is charged and posts bail/bond and is released or the person is released on his or her own recognizance ("O.R." release) until arraignment in court; or
    • The person is charged, but cannot post bail/bond and is not released on his or her own recognizance, and remains in custody until arraignment in court.

  2. Arraignment - The arraignment is a defendant's first appearance in court if they are charged with a misdemeanor. At the arraignment, the judge informs the defendant of the charges filed against him or her; advises the defendant of his or her constitutional rights; and, if the defendant cannot afford an attorney of his or her own choice, that the defendant has the right to an attorney appointed by the court (e.g. a public defender).

    At arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. In general, these pleas have the following effect:
    • Not Guilty: The defendant denies the charges filed against him or her and the case continues to the pretrial hearing. At that time, the defendant is either released on his or her own recognizance, or the court sets bail and the defendant is remanded/committed to the custody of the Sheriff.
    • Guilty: The defendant admits that that he or she committed the crime and is sentenced by the court. Sentences may include county jail incarceration, probation, fines, community service, participation in rehabilitative programs, or some combination of these punishments.
    • No Contest: The defendant does not contest (or challenge) the charge and the result is the same as a guilty plea, except that the conviction resulting from the plea cannot be used against the defendant as evidence of liability in a civil suit.

  3. Pretrial Hearing - If the defendant pleads "not guilty" at arraignment, the next court appearance is called the pretrial hearing. At the pretrial hearing, there is an exchange of information between the prosecution and the defense known as "discovery". Discovery generally includes items such as police reports, witness statements and physical evidence. The attorneys may also file pretrial motions at this time challenging the charges or seeking to exclude certain evidence. At the pretrial hearing the defendant may also choose to change his or her plea from not guilty to guilty or no contest.

  4. Trial (by Jury or by the Court) - If the defendant does not change his or her plea to "guilty" or "no contest," the case proceeds to trial.

    At trial, the defendant has the right to be tried by a jury of his or her peers who will weigh the evidence presented and reach a verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty." (A defendant may waive this right and choose to have the judge, rather than a jury, hear the evidence and enter a verdict.) If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the defendant is released and cannot be tried again for the same crime. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the defendant will be sentenced either immediately or at a later hearing

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Felonies

Felony crimes are punishable by a state prison term or death.

Common examples of felonies include:

  • Murder
  • Robbery
  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Certain sex crimes
  • Some domestic violence offenses
  • Possession for sale of certain drugs

While every felony case follows its own path through the law enforcement and legal system, the following events, in general, are typical when someone is alleged to have committed a felony:

  1. Arrest - When a person is accused of a felony they will often be arrested and held by law enforcement. When this occurs, three things may happen:
    • No charges are filed and the person is released;
    • The person is charged and posts bail/bond and is released or the person is released on his or her own recognizance until arraignment in court;
    • The person is charged, but cannot post bail/bond and is not released on his or her own recognizance, and remains in custody until arraignment in court; or
    • The person is charged and is held without bail (this may occur in various serious felony cases)

  2. Arraignment - As with a misdemeanor, the arraignment is a defendant's first appearance in court when charged with a felony. At the arraignment, the judge informs the defendant of the charges filed against him or her; advises the defendant of his or her constitutional rights; and, if the defendant cannot afford an attorney of his or her own choice, that the defendant has the right to an attorney appointed by the court.

    At arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. In general, these pleas have the following effect:

    • Not Guilty: The defendant denies the charges filed against him or her and the case continues to the pretrial hearing. At that time, the defendant is either released on his or her own recognizance," or the court sets bail and the defendant is remanded/committed to the custody of the Sheriff.
    • Guilty: The defendant admits that that he or she committed the crime and is sentenced by the court.
    • No Contest: The defendant does not contest (or challenge) the charge and the result is the same as a guilty plea, except that the conviction resulting from the plea cannot be used against the defendant as evidence of liability in a civil suit.

  3. Preliminary Hearing - Following arraignment, the defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, in order for the case against the defendant to proceed further, the prosecutor must show that there is a strong suspicion that the defendant committed the crime alleged and that the defendant is probably guilty. This standard is much lower and more easily satisfied than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that the prosecutor must prove to convict the defendant at trial. If the judge finds that the prosecutor presents sufficient evidence at the preliminary hearing to meet this standard, the defendant is "held to answer" the felony charges and is "arraigned on the information." This case is now in a position to proceed to trial.

  4. Arraignment on the Information - If the defendant is "held to answer" following the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor will file a document called the Information and the defendant will be Arraigned on the Information. The Information sets forth the charges against the defendant that passed the preliminary hearing and will be at issue at trial.

    At the arraignment on the information, the procedures that occurred at the initial arraignment occur again. The judge informs the defendant of the charges filed against him or her and the defendant again enters a plea of not guilty, guilty or no contest. If the defendant pleads "not guilty," the case is then set for trial.

  5. Trial (by Jury or by the Court) - If the Defendant does not change his or her "not guilty" plea to a "no contest" or "guilty" plea the case proceeds to trial.

    At trial, the defendant has the right to be tried by a jury of his or her peers who will weigh the evidence presented and reach a verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty." (A defendant may waive this right and choose to have the judge, rather than a jury, hear the evidence and enter a verdict.) If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the defendant is released and cannot be tried again for the same crime. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the defendant will be sentenced either immediately or at a later hearing.

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Please contact the Weinrieb Law Firm if you have further questions or would like additional information on the criminal process.

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(818)933-6555


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