While much of the focus during a person's criminal trial is on whether they are guilty or innocent, the sentencing phase is also important. It is understandable why many defendants focus on avoid a conviction entirely, but the reality is that many successful defenses will focus exclusively on fighting back during the sentencing phase of a trial.
This decision is understandable given California's reliance on determinate sentencing. In California, many criminal statutes require set sentence lengths compared to the variable sentences other states commonly use. With less sentencing discretion, defendants have the potential to spend more time in jail.
Given what is at stake following a criminal conviction in California, it is imperative that you seek legal counsel as soon as you are charged. While the ultimate goal of your defense counsel is to avoid a conviction entirely, sometimes the strongest defense is to argue for lenient sentencing. Your attorney could work within the framework of the statute to demonstrate you should face the lightest sentence allowed under the law.
Attorney Vitaly Sigal has spent his career defending those accused of crimes in the Los Angeles area. His experience taking on the state during sentencing hearings has allowed his clients to obtain favorable outcomes in many cases. To learn more, schedule a free consultation with attorney Vitaly Sigal today.
What is determinate sentencing?
Determinate sentencing is a criminal sentence that involves a set amount of jail time upon a criminal conviction. This differs from indeterminate sentencing, which provides a wide range of potential penalties and allows the judge leeway to hand down a sentence within that range.
Many jurisdictions rely exclusively on indeterminate sentencing. These statutes typically involve sentences based on a range of years. For example, a sentence of up to a year in county jail or as much 20 years in prison is an indeterminate sentence. It would be the role of the judge to determine where in the sentencing range the final judgment should fall.
States that use determinate sentencing – including California – do not offer judges the same discretion. However, the courts can still play an important role in determinate sentencing depending on the statue. In many cases, California law will provide three different sentence lengths that may be handed down by the court.
California Sentencing Process
The process of handing down a sentence in a criminal case is the same whether a defendant pleads guilty to a charge or is found guilty following a trial. In either case, it is the role of the judge to impose a sentence through an order known as a judgment.
In California, this sentence is not imposed immediately following a trial. According to California Penal Code 1170, both the state and the defendant have the right to request a sentencing hearing. A sentencing hearing offers both parties the opportunity to argue for against a reduced sentence. The state could even argue for a sentence that goes above and beyond the standard sentence.
These hearings are similar to a trial. However, the rights of a defendant are reduced substantially after they are convicted of a crime. The end result is that the rules of evidence are often loosened significantly during a sentencing hearing. This could allow the prosecution to rely on evidence that was not available during the guilt stage of the trial.
Evidence in a Sentencing Hearing
The loosened evidence rules in a sentencing hearing could weigh heavily in a case. These informal rules typically benefit the prosecution, but a defendant does have some recourse in these hearings.
The critical rule during sentencing is that every defendant is entitled to a “meaningful” chance to object to a sentence. This prevents the court from signaling the sentence it will hand down before the sentencing hearing occurs. This means the judge must not only avail the defense of their chance to be heard but also provide written explanation of the court's decision once the sentence is handed down.
When it comes to the introduction of evidence that might not have been allowed at trial, the most common example is the use of out-of-court hearsay. Many hearsay exceptions bar any mention of certain unsworn statements, much less the admission of those statements of evidence at trial. The rules on hearsay are much less restrictive during sentencing, which allows the prosecutor to use allegations that might not have been available during the guilt phase. The defense is entitled to notice that the state intends to use these unsworn statements and that the court intends to allow them to do so. The defendant is guaranteed the right to respond to each of these statements.
There are other types of evidence that could be allowed in during sentencing that could not be used at trial. This could include some evidence that was excluded from trial because it was unlawfully obtained by the police. This rule could come as a surprise to many, given the general understanding that illegally obtained evidence may not be used against you. The use of suppressed evidence during sentencing is often powerful in the hands of the prosecution.
Certain prior convictions may not be used as evidence during the guilt phase of a trial. The most common example of this is a driving under the influence case. While a prosecutor may not make mention of previous DUI convictions during the guilt phase, these convictions are fair game at sentencing. In fact, prior DUI convictions will typically enhance the penalties in a drunken driving case. Prior convictions may not be used at sentencing if the defendant successfully completed a deferred judgment or diversion program.
The final important difference in the rules of evidence during trials and sentencing hearings is the ability to cross-examine a witness. At trial, a defendant is entitled to cross-examine every witness the state calls. This right does not exist during the course of a sentencing hearing. The state can call witnesses that were not a part of the trial, allowing the state to rely on the testimony of witnesses that have never been cross-examined by the defense.
Sentencing Hearing Date
Not only does the Penal Code require a sentencing hearing, it also sets a time limit for when the hearing must occur. The Penal code not only sets a maximum amount of time that may elapse between a trial and sentencing, it also sets a minimum. These time limits differ between misdemeanors and felonies.
In a misdemeanor case, the sentence must be handed down at least six hours after the conviction, but the hearing must occur no more than five days after the entry of a guilty plea, no-contest plea, or trial verdict. It should be noted the defendant has the right to waive this timeline if they so choose. This could occur in cases where a plaintiff has pled guilty as part of a deferred sentencing plea bargain. Many defendants will also waive the six-hour requirement and receive their sentence immediately after the trial occurs.
The rules regarding the scheduling of a felony sentencing hearing are less restrictive. Following a guilty plea or trial verdict, the judge in a felony case must set the sentencing hearing within 20 days. However, the court may extend that deadline by an additional 10 days if:
- A motion for a new trial was filed
- The court is awaiting a probation recommendation, or
- If the court is evaluating if the defendant is legally sane or not
Guidelines for Sentencing
The specific rules a judge must abide by during sentencing often depends if the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony. While most misdemeanor offenses carry indeterminate sentences of up to six months, felonies under the California Penal code usually offer there different determined sentences.
How Determinate Sentences are Made
When the judge faces a sentencing decision in a felony case, the statute typically offers three different set sentences to choose from. These are typically known as low, mid, and high terms.
While the courts are given some discretion in selecting either of the three options, the court must give their reasoning for which option the select in their written order. The default sentence in a felony case is a mid-term sentence. The judge may take into account aggravating and mitigating factors under the law when reaching its decision.
There are some factors that automatically aggravate a sentence. This includes a strike under the three-strikes law, a prior conviction, or certain enhancements written into a specific statute. While the court has the power to dismiss these factors, they must also provide written reasons for doing so.
When a Defendant Faces Multiple Charges
Another factor that could complicate a determinate sentence is when a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes. This is fairly common, as a single criminal act routinely violates a variety of statutes. When a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes, the court must decide if the sentences are served concurrently or consecutively.
Concurrent sentencing means that all of the sentences are served at the same time. This means the penalties overlap, resulting in a much shorter amount of time in jail. For example, if a defendant is convicted of three concurrent terms of five years in prison, the defendant will complete all three terms at the same time when five years is up.
Consecutive sentences are far harsher. When a court orders a defendant to serve multiple sentences consecutively, they must complete one sentence entirely before serving time on the next conviction. Consider the example above. If a defendant is ordered to serve three five-year sentences consecutively, they will serve all three back to back. The end result would be 15 years in state prison.
California Penal Code 669 sets guidelines for how this decision is made by the court. Under the statute, the courts must make a determination of whether a sentence is concurrent or consecutive even if the cases are heard by different judges in different courts. When this occurs, the judge that rules last will make the determination of whether a sentence is concurrent or consecutive.
Penal Code 669 also sets the default sentence for multiple convictions to run concurrently. Unless a judge expressly orders a sentence to run consecutively, the state will treat the sentence as concurrent. However, a judge that fails to make a recommendation either way could have an additional 60 days to amend their order if they were unaware of other criminal proceedings. If the judge in the second case is made aware of the other conviction and fails to take any action, the sentences will remain concurrent.
Defendant's Rights in the Sentence Process
From the moment a judge or jury hands down a guilty verdict, a defendant enjoys certain rights during sentencing. While these rights might be diminished compared to what a person enjoys at trial, these rights are important to ensuring a defendant is treated fairly. A skilled criminal defense attorney could advise a person convicted of a crime of their legal rights throughout sentencing and beyond. Some of these important rights include:
- The right to attend the sentencing hearing
- The right to have an attorney advise them and appear at the hearing
- The right to propose alternative sentencing options, including rehabilitation
- The right to present evidence
- The right to receive formal arraignment for judgment, which involves the court advising the defendant of the charges, the verdict, and the pleas entered in the case.
These rights are an important part of allowing a person convicted of a crime to defend themselves. If successful in relying on these rights, a defense attorney could obtain a favorable sentence or even an alternative sentence other than incarceration.
How a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Could Help
The skill and experience of a dedicated criminal defense attorney could make an enormous difference during sentencing. Even in cases with determinate sentencing, the court often retains substantial leeway in the judgment they render. The right attorney could show the court that leniency is warranted.
Attorney Vitaly Sigal has an extensive history of success during sentencing. If you are facing criminal charges, contact the Sigal Law Group right away.