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WHAT IS A CRIMINAL CASE?

Criminal cases range from relatively minor offenses such as traffic infractions to serious ones like robbery and murder. The state makes the charge against someone accused of committing a crime because a crime is considered an act against society. The prosecuting attorney presents the charge against the accused person (defendant) on behalf of the state (plaintiff), and must prove to the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty. In all criminal cases, the defendant is presumed to be innocent, and may not be convicted, unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

A criminal case begins when a prosecutor files formal charges, a person is arrested, or a grand jury issues an indictment.

If a defendant--the person accused of a crime--is in custody, he or she has the right to an arraignment, usually held in a municipal or justice court, within 48 hours of being arrested. At the hearing, the judge will officially tell defendants about their constitutional rights and explain the charges against them. Also, bail may be raised or lowered and defendants may request to be released on their promise to appear OR (on their own recognizance).

If a defendant who has been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint one from the public defender's office. (Since infraction convictions do not result in jail or prison terms, the court does not appoint a public defender in those cases.)

Defendants also will be asked to plead to the charges against them: guilty, not guilty, or, in some cases, nolo contendere (the person does not contest the charges, which legally is the same as a guilty plea).

MISDEMEANORS

Defendants who plead guilty to a misdemeanor may be sentenced during the first arraignment, unless the judge wishes to postpone sentencing in order to study a probation report.

During the arraignment, if a defendant pleads not guilty to a misdemeanor, the judge will set the date for a trial in the municipal or justice court within 30 days if the defendant is in custody or within 45 days if the defendant is not in custody--unless the defendant waives the right to a speedy trial.

FELONIES

If a defendant pleads guilty to a felony at this first appearance, he or she must be represented by an attorney (unless the defendant, in a noncapital case, waives the right to one). After a guilty plea in municipal or justice court, the judge has the option to keep the case in that court for sentencing or probation or to transfer the case to a superior court.

If a defendant pleads not guilty to a felony, a preliminary hearing is held in the municipal or justice court, where the district attorney must show evidence that the defendant committed a felony and should be brought to trial. This step (or the alternative--a grand jury indictment) is necessary to make sure that only defendants against whom there is significant evidence are compelled to undergo a felony trial.

If the judge decides that the district attorney did not show enough evidence, the charges will be dropped and the defendant will go free.

However, if the judge decides there is enough evidence, the defendant will be arraigned a second time in superior court, where the defendant again will be formally charged, rights will be explained, and a plea will be made.

THE TRIAL

Both felony and misdemeanor cases go to trial only rarely. Most (over 90 percent) are disposed of by defendants' pleas of guilty. Of all the cases that do go to jury trial, the majority are related to DUI offenses (driving under the influence). Whether the case involves a felony or misdemeanor, the trial follows the same pattern.

If the case goes to trial in superior court, the district attorney, on behalf of the State of California, first files an information (a written charge against a defendant filed in superior court after a preliminary examination in a municipal or justice court) or an indictment (a written accusation presented upon oath by a grand jury that a person has committed a crime).

Not guilty plea: When a defendant enters a plea of not guilty, the case proceeds to trial. The jury is selected--12 people plus alternate jurors if the trial is expected to be long. At the trial, lawyers on each side of the case may make brief statements (called opening statements) to the jury outlining what they expect to prove with the evidence they have.

Presentation of evidence: Each side then has a turn to present evidence, which can be pictures, objects, documents, or sworn testimony by witnesses. Evidence must have a direct tendency to prove or disprove the issues in the case. There are evidence rules that are intended to ensure that unreliable evidence is not received.

Objections: During a trial, if attorneys on either side feel that a question asked or evidence offered is improper, they may make objections. The judge may sustain or overrule such objections.

Closing arguments: After both sides have presented their evidence, each has a chance to present rebuttal evidence. Then both sides of the case give their closing arguments. This is the stage when the attorneys analyze and interpret the evidence that was presented.

Verdict: The judge will instruct the jury on the law that applies to the case. The jury then moves to the jury room to reach a verdict.

If it reaches a guilty verdict in a felony case, the judge will order a probation report and schedule a sentencing hearing for 20 days later.

A misdemeanor can be sentenced immediately.

Sentences: State and local laws define crimes and specify punishment. The maximum sentence for an infraction is a fine; for a misdemeanor it is up to one year in a county jail; and for a felony it is time in a state prison or, for some murders, death. Some counties offer "diversion" programs that allow a judge to order a defendant to get medical treatment or counseling or to do community service work. The diversion program may take the place of a fine or jail sentence in certain types of misdemeanor and felony charges.

[Note: The laws and procedures referred are subject to change.]

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