What happens when someone is charged with a felony?
A felony is a serious criminal charge, which is defined in terms of
possible punishment. It is defined in the California Penal Code as "any
crime that is punishable by death or by imprisonment in state prison." In
most cases, a felony prosecution starts with an arrest. Written police
reports are presented to the District Attorney's Office, which then
decides what charges, if any, should be filed and whether those charges
will be felonies or misdemeanors (which are less serious crimes punishable
by no more than a year in county jail and/or a possible fine).
Felony charges may also be filed even though there has not been an
arrest. For example, the police may conduct an investigation of a crime
and identify a suspect. Rather than arresting that person, the police
may instead present their investigation to the District Attorney, who
may file charges with a court and get an arrest warrant. The District
Attorney may also present evidence to the Grand Jury, which has the
power to charge a person with a felony. Depending on the severity of
the charges will determine the bail amount. Most people charged with
a felony will be allowed to post a bail bond at most city and county jails and Police
The first step in the criminal court process is called an arraignment.
Usually, this is the first time the defendant appears in court. He
is informed of the charges, and is offered legal representation if
he cannot afford to hire a private attorney. The defendant then enters
a plea of guilty or not guilty. Most often, this is also the time when
the defendant has his first contact with the Public Defender's Office.
The Deputy Public Defender who handles arraignments in that particular
court will discuss the case briefly with the defendant. Ordinarily
the Deputy Public Defender will then enter a plea of "not guilty" on
behalf of the client. (If a case is particularly complex or unusual,
a plea might not be entered at the first appearance, but might be entered
at a later date in order to allow the Deputy Public Defender time to
gather more information about the charges.) If a "not guilty" plea
is entered at this first appearance, the case will then be scheduled
for a preliminary hearing which is usually set no later than 10 court
days after the arraignment.
The preliminary hearing is the court proceeding at which the District
Attorney's Office must present enough evidence to convince a judge
that there is reasonable cause to believe a crime has been committed
-- and that the accused is the person who committed the crime.
This hearing is not heard by a jury, and at this point in the criminal
process, the prosecution's case does not have to be proved beyond a
reasonable doubt. The primary purpose of the preliminary hearing is
to weed out charges that are obviously groundless. At a preliminary
hearing, the prosecution may use police officers to present the statements
of victims and witnesses to demonstrate to the judge that there is
enough evidence to justify sending the case to a court for trial. The
vast majority of defendants are "held to answer" after the
Understandably, this can be terribly frustrating for a client who
wants to "fight" aggressively to win his case now, rather
than later. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, nor wise. However,
it is always important to remember that delay in a court case does
not mean defeat. Effective and thorough legal defense takes time to
prepare and that is always worth waiting for.
The case then moves to a trial court where the defendant is once again
arraigned; however, this time a trial date is set. Generally speaking,
the trial has to occur within 60 days from the date of this new arraignment,
although felony cases frequently require more time so that the defense
can conduct a complete, independent investigation, interview witnesses,
consult with expert witnesses, and sift through all evidence presented
by the District Attorney.
The defense attorney may also make various motions in order to get
the case dismissed on legal grounds, such as a motion to get certain
evidence thrown out of court because the police acted improperly when
seizing this evidence, or a motion to dismiss because the evidence
presented at the preliminary hearing was not strong enough to warrant
a trial. The defense might also make motions to force the District
Attorney or the police to disclose other pieces of evidence which could
prove that the client is not guilty of the charge.
While the case is ongoing, the defendant may decide he or she does
not want to go to trial but wants to settle the matter. Just as often,
a District Attorney might offer the defendant a case settlement, referred
to as a "plea bargain," to plead guilty to a less serious
charge or agree to ask for reduced incarceration time at sentencing.
Settlement may occur at any time, from the first court appearance
at the initial arraignment up to, and even during, trial. Case settlement
usually involves the defendant pleading "guilty" or "no
contest" for an agreed sentence or to an agreed-upon charge.
Another kind of "settlement" can be possible in certain
felony cases involving non-violent drug offenses. Individuals who have
been charged with first-time drug offenses, as well as certain defendants
who suffer from the disease of drug addiction may be eligible to attend
classes or other rehabilitation programs. If they successfully complete
all required programs, they can have their case dismissed in a process
which is known as "Deferred Entry of Judgment" -- commonly
referred to as DEJ or drug diversion. Still other defendants who commit
non-violent drug possession offenses may be eligible for sentencing
according to the Proposition 36, which generally favors long-term drug
treatment as an alternative to incarceration. DEJ is available only
upon a plea of "guilty," whereas Proposition 36 sentencing
is available upon conviction -- whether a defendant pleaded guilty
or was found guilty after a trial.
An adult criminal defendant has the right to a trial by jury. This
is where 12 jurors, who are called "the finders of fact," listen
to all the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense
and decide what is proved and what is not. The judge's job at a jury
trial is to make sure that both the prosecution and the defense adhere
to all the rules of evidence when presenting their case to the jury.
At trial, the prosecution must try to prove the client's guilt beyond
a reasonable doubt. All 12 jurors must agree in order to either convict
or acquit. If the jury cannot agree, a "mistrial" will be
declared by the court, and the case may be tried again before a different
jury, it may be dismissed, or a case settlement may be agreed by the
prosecution and the defense.
A defendant can also decide to have a judge hear the case, instead
of a jury; this is called a "court trial." For this to happen,
the prosecution must also agree. In a court trial, the prosecution
still has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but this time,
the judge is the "finder of fact" and must decide whether
or not the defendant is guilty, while also making certain that both
attorneys are abiding by all the rules of evidence.
If a defendant is found guilty, the judge will then impose a sentence.
The possible range of sentence, which is set by various laws, may range
from no jail and probation, to imprisonment in the state prison. Sentencing
can be a very complex process, depending on the severity of the crime
for which the defendant has just been convicted.
Defendants who have been convicted after a trial have the right to appeal
their conviction. This process is started by the trial attorney who,
upon request of the client, will file a notice of appeal in the trial
court within 60 days of the imposition of sentence. A lawyer who specializes
in appeals will then be appointed by the Court of Appeal to represent
the defendant on appeal.
In the most serious of cases, referred to as special circumstance prosecutions,
the defendant faces a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility
of parole, or even the death penalty. If a defendant has been convicted of
such an offense, then there is a separate proceeding, called a penalty phase,
at which both sides present evidence either in aggravation or mitigation of
penalty. The jury determines the appropriate penalty. If the jury determines
that the defendant should be executed, the judge still has the power to overrule
that determination and to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without
the possibility of parole. However, if the jury agrees that life imprisonment
is the appropriate punishment, the judge does not have the power to impose
the death penalty.