The California Criminal Justice System
Updated: Jan 19
This article will highlight how the criminal justice system works in San Diego, California. It is worth noting that the trajectory of a criminal case depends on the nature of criminal charges. This typically falls into one of three categories: 1) Infractions, 2) Misdemeanors, and 3) Felonies. Misdemeanor and felony charges allow a Defendant to request a jury trial, which is guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S Constitution, and Article 1, sections 16 and 24 of the California Constitution. There is no right to a jury trial for infraction charges. You can, however, request a bench trial for infractions. A bench trial is conducted only in front of a Judge, with no jury present. Below, you will find more detailed information on how a felony/misdemeanor case makes its way through the criminal justice system, starting with the arraignment.
The arraignment is typically the first appearance before the Court after charges have been formally filed by the Government. The Judge will read the charges to the Defendant, to which Defendant will enter a plea of Guilty or Not Guilty. If Defendant pleads guilty, the Judge will take that as an admission of guilt and proceed to sentence the Defendant or set out a future date for sentencing. A not guilty plea will result in future dates, which usually includes readiness conference(s) and trial (bench or jury trial).
If Defendant is in custody at the time of arraignment, the Judge can either 1) release Defendant on their “own recognizance” (Defendant promises to appear back in Court on the date/time provided); 2) set bail at a specified amount (Defendant will go back to jail until bail is posted); or 3) refuse to set bail and send Defendant back to jail. The specific bail amount is determined by the charges you were arrested on. At this time, your attorney can also ask the Court to set a bail review hearing, in hopes of getting bail reduced or request release on Defendant’s own recognizance, or some type of supervised release. An experienced defense attorney should evaluate all these options to effectively represent you in your criminal case.
In misdemeanor cases, Defense and the Prosecution begin to share discovery with each other at this stage. The prosecution has a duty to turn over all relevant evidence as it relates to the alleged charged crime. The prosecution and defense can file various motions as they related to the case (motion to dismiss, motion to suppress certain evidence, etc.). The prosecutor and defense will also engage in negotiations of the case during this pretrial conference. It is common for criminal cases (misdemeanor and felony) to have several pre-trial conferences prior to trial in hopes of resolving the case.
In felony cases, the Judge will set a date for a preliminary hearing. At this hearing, the Judge will hear evidence from the prosecution to decide whether there is enough evidence indicating that Defendant committed the charged crime. At this stage, an experienced attorney can argue to the Judge that the “evidence” presented by the prosecution does not support binding over Defendant for trial, or alternatively move to exclude some the charges alleged on the complaint. If the Judge finds to the contrary, Defendant is once again arraigned on the “information” and a trial date is set or confirmed.
Following the arraignment of a criminal case, defense or prosecution may choose to file certain motions in your case. These motions include, but are not limited to, motions to suppress evidence, motions to compel, motion for diversion, motion to strike, motion to continue, pitchess motion, serna motion, etc. An experienced attorney will know which specific motions to file on your case based on the law and facts as they relate to your specific case.
Defendant can choose to waive a jury trial and proceed with a bench trial instead. An experienced trial lawyer will discuss with you the pros and cons of each option and advise what he or she believes would be the best avenue for your specific case.
On the first day of trial, the defense and prosecution will file trial briefs and argue their respective positions before the Court. The Judge will decide on these motions and make rulings that will be binding during the trial. Once trial motions are heard, the next step is jury selection (also known as “voir dire.” During this time, the Judge, defense and prosecution will question the prospective jurors and later move to challenge/strike certain jurors from sitting on the case. Depending on the charges, jury selection may last a few days.
Once a jury has been empaneled on the case, the prosecution and defense will provide opening statements to the jury. After opening statements, the prosecution will present evidence during their case in chief. The defense will then have an opportunity to cross examine all prosecution witnesses that take the stand. After the prosecution has presented their case, the Defense may choose to present evidence. After both parties have “rested” their case, we move on to closing arguments, starting with the prosecution, followed by defense.
After closing arguments, the Judge will read jury instructions to the jury and instruct them on the law. The jury then begins to deliberate, followed by a verdict (guilty or not guilty) in the case. If the verdict is not guilty, the Defendant is free to go. If the verdict is guilty, the Judge will set a sentencing hearing for the case.
It is important to note that the guilty/non guilty verdict needs to be unanimous. That is, all 12 jurors need to agree on the verdict. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the Court will declare a mistrial and either dismiss the case or set new dates for trial. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict in your case, an experienced attorney should argue for a dismissal of the charges. The ultimate decision, however, lies with the trial Judge.
This is usually the last appearance before the court. The prosecution and defense may file sentencing motions for the Court to consider. Both the defense and prosecution will make recommendations to the Court on what the appropriate sentence should be based on the charges and facts as they came out in trial. During sentencing, the Defendant can choose to make a statement to the Judge, if they wish. At the end of this hearing, the Judge will enter a judgment and proceed to sentence the defendant.
- Monty Randhawa, Criminal Defense Trial Attorney