Criminal Process Overview: Know Your Rights
Getting arrested or being investigated for a crime can be a frightening, anxiety-provoking experience. Most individuals don't know what to expect from law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Here is a general overview of what to expect after an arrest for a felony. Keep in mind that the most important thing you can do if you are facing a criminal charge is to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who will guide you through the legal process and fight to protect your rights every step of the way.
The process is slightly different for misdemeanors and felonies (for misdemeanor charges, the steps are only the arraignment, pretrial hearing, and trial). If you're fortunate enough to have a defense attorney on your side before you're arrested (e.g., during an investigation or initial police questioning), the process may be different. Click here to learn about your rights with our full size infographic
The prosecutor files a complaint with the judge, who might read the charges out loud to the accused. Most of the time, a “not guilty” plea is entered. The judge will set the next court date, and he or she will set the amount of bail (the money to be put up as a surety for your return to court). If the bail is too high an amount for you, your lawyer can request a bail hearing to try to get the bail reduced. In some cases, the judge will release a defendant on his own “recognizance,” which means without bail.
Bail Review Hearing
Here, your lawyer will argue that your bail should be revised to a lesser amount, and the prosecutor will argue to keep it high. The judge's decision will prevail for the remainder of your case, unless another hearing brings up extenuating circumstances.
At a pretrial hearing, your lawyer and the prosecutor will present their views toward a resolution of your case in what is informally called a “plea bargain.” Your lawyer will use all of his knowledge and experience to try to obtain the best circumstances for you. Although you'll have the legal counsel and advice of your attorney, the decision to accept a plea deal is ultimately yours alone to make.
If you accept the plea, the change of plea will be taken back to the judge, who will either:
- issue your sentence immediately, or
- set a sentencing date
If you reject the plea agreement offer, the court will set a date for a preliminary hearing. Having a skilled attorney who understands the legal process and the unique circumstances of your case is imperative in the decision-making process. Although it is ultimately up to you, a qualified criminal law attorney will be able to help you make the right decision based on his/her experience with similar cases.
The prosecutor and defense attorney will present their evidence, witnesses and/or law enforcement officers, and arguments to the judge at this hearing, sometimes called a “probable cause” hearing. The judge then has the option to dismiss the charge(s), reduce the, or rule that the charges have been proven valid—in which case another Arraignment will be scheduled.
A document called the Information is then presented to the defendant in court, and the next court dates (for the Readiness Conference and Trial) are set.
Here, the defense and prosecution and judge try attempt to resolve the case to prevent the need for a trial. If they're not successful, a trial date is set.
The prosecutor has a high burden of proof”—that is, the state or federal government must prove to a jury or judge that you are guilty of the crime(s) charged “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Some trials take less than a day; others last for weeks. If the defendant is found guilty, his or her sentencing will probably take place at a later date.
Your defense lawyer and the prosecutor will request a sentence that they feel is appropriate. The judge makes the decision, within sentencing guidelines.
Every convicted defendant has the right to appeal his or her sentence.
The criminal process can be confusing and seem daunting to undertake on your own. Protect your constitutionally guaranteed legal rights, every step of the way. Contact a Los Angeles criminal lawyer at the Sigal Law Group, PC today.