Being charged with a crime can be a stressful experience. However, understanding the court process can help make the experience less intimidating.
There are three classifications of crime in California. Crimes are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. Infractions carry a maximum penalty of a fine. Jail time cannot be imposed for committing an infraction. Infractions are the least serious of crimes and include common traffic violations such as speeding. Most misdemeanors carry a maximum penalty of time in the county jail. The amount of time that can be imposed for a misdemeanor depends upon the crime. Up to a year in jail can be imposed for some misdemeanors. Misdemeanors include crimes such as petty theft and driving under the influence. Felonies are the most serious class of crimes. Felonies are punishable by time in the state prison. The amount of time that can be imposed for a felony depends upon the crime and the defendant’s prior criminal history. Crimes such as murder, robbery, and possession of drugs for sale are examples of felonies.
Some crimes can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. These crimes are referred to as wobblers. The level of the crime charged is determined by the prosecutor. However, for these crimes, a judge has the power to reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor. Driving under the influence with injury, possession of methamphetamine, and domestic violence with injury are examples of wobblers. There are also crimes that can be charged as misdemeanors or infractions. Examples include driving without being licensed, and disturbing the peace.
If a person commits a criminal violation of a state law in Lake County, the agency responsible for the prosecution is the Lake County District Attorney’s Office. In Mendocino County, the agency responsible for prosecution is the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney will normally file a charging document called a complaint to charge a defendant with a misdemeanor or felony. The criminal court process begins with the arraignment. At the arraignment, a judge will read the complaint and formally advise a defendant of his or her rights.
Every defendant charged with a misdemeanor or felony has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. If a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the judge will appoint a public defender to represent the defendant subject to reimbursement at the conclusion of the case.
After a defendant has been arraigned and has either hired an attorney or been appointed an attorney, a defendant normally pleads not guilty to all charges.
Every person charged with a felony has a statutory right to a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the District Attorney must establish probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crimes charged. If the judge finds there is sufficient evidence to support the charges, the judge will issue a holding order. In order to proceed with the case, the District Attorney must file a charging document called an information within 15 days of the holding order.
A defendant’s guilt is determined at a jury trial unless that right is waived. Most defendants waive this right and enter into plea bargains. A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant and the prosecution in which the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a less serious offense and/or to fewer than all of the charges or allegations in exchange for a lesser sentence and/or dismissal of some of the charges or allegations. A plea bargain gives a defendant the opportunity to avoid sitting through a trial risking exposure to more time and/or conviction on the original more serious charges.
If the case cannot be resolved by agreement, a defendant is entitled to a jury trial. In a felony case, a defendant has a statutory right to a jury trial within 60 days of arraignment on the information or entry of plea, whichever is later. In a misdemeanor case, if a defendant is in custody, he or she has a right to a jury trial within 30 days of arraignment on the complaint or entry of plea, whichever is later. If a defendant is out of custody, he or she has a right to a jury trial within 45 days of arraignment on the complaint or entry of plea, whichever is later.
At the trial, a defendant has certain constitutional rights including the following: right to confront and cross-examine witnesses; right to present evidence; right to remain silent; and the right to an attorney. Twelve members of the community are selected to serve as jurors in a trial. A defendant may not be convicted unless, after the presentation of all the evidence, all twelve jurors agree that the evidence proves the defendants guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
After a defendant is convicted of a crime, a judge sentences the defendant. As previously stated, a judge can impose jail time for misdemeanors and prison for felonies. However, in many situations, a defendant is granted probation in lieu of a harsher sentence such as a lengthy sentence in jail or prison. If a defendant is granted probation, he or she will have to comply with certain terms, which sometimes includes jail, during a probationary period. As long as the defendant complies with the terms of his or her probation, he or she will avoid the harsher penalty.
Although being charged with a crime can be stressful, having the assistance of an experienced criminal law attorney who can guide you through the process can help make the experience less intimidating.