Criminal cases in California are divided into 2 categories: Felonies and Misdemeanors.
Misdemeanors are defined as crimes punishable by a maximum of one year in the county jail. Misdemeanors include most DUIs, petty thefts, simple assaults, and many other common crimes.
Arraignment: The first court appearance is an arraignment. This is the time when you are officially informed of the charges against you, and your attorney is given most of the evidence that the prosecutor plans to use against you in your case.
Time waivers: You have the right to a speedy trial. At the arraignment, you can insist that they bring you to trial quickly, or you can choose to waive this right. This decision will depend on the facts of your case, and you should discuss it with your lawyer.
Pre-Trial Conference: The next court appearance is usually a pre-trial conference. At this point, your lawyer will have become familiar with the fact of your case and the law that applies to those specific facts. At the pre-trial conference, your lawyer will typically go into the Judge’s chambers with the Judge and Prosecutor (D.A.) and try to resolve your case. At this point, your case may be dismissed, or the D.A. may make an offer to reduce some charges if you are willing to plea guilty to other charges. At this point, your lawyer will talk to you about the offer and give his/her opinion about whether this is a good offer or not. As you generally will not know if this is a reasonable offer, it is vital to have a lawyer that you trust. If you decide to accept this offer, the case is usually over. If not, it continues towards trial.
Motions: There are many motions that your attorney can make to help your case. They depend on the facts of your case, and there are too many to summarize here. Most motions result in a hearing, and the time frame depends on the complexity of the motions.
Trial: If your case is still not resolved, it is set for trial. At trial in California cases, a jury of 12 people must unanimously find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for you to be convicted of any crime. If 11 people vote guilty and 1 votes not guilty, it is a mistrial. The D.A. then has the choice to try again or to dismiss your case.
Felonies are more serious than misdemeanors, and are punishable by a sentence in State Prison. Since they are more serious, defendants are given additional protections.
Felonies begin the same way as misdemeanors, with an arraignment and pre-trial conference. However, in felonies, there is an additional step, called a preliminary hearing.
Preliminary Hearing: Individuals charged with felonies are usually given a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the D.A. must prove to a judge that they have enough evidence to continue prosecuting the case. At this hearing, the D.A. will often call police officers and other witness to prove their case. Your lawyer will cross examine all witnesses produced by the D.A. At the end of the hearing, the judge will decide if enough evidence has been presented for the case to continue. If the judge feels there has not been enough evidence, the case is dismissed. If the judge feels there has been enough evidence, the case is certified to the superior court, and the process begins again.
If the case is certified to superior court, there is a new arraignment, new pretrial conferences, new motions filed on your behalf, and if the case is not dismissed or an adequate settlement is not reached, the case is set for trial.