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Santa Cruz County

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Santa Cruz County
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Anatomy of a Prosecution


ARRAIGNMENT

This is the first court appearance for any misdemeanor or felony. Once arrested and charged with a felony, the suspect appears in Court for arraignment. At arraignment, the defendant is told what crime he/she is charged with, and is advised of his constitutional rights to a jury or court trial, appointed attorney, presumption of innocence, etc. The charging document is called a Complaint. The conditions and amount of bail are determined. In some cases, generally based on the nature of the charge, the Judge imposes conditions on bail, such as “no contact” with the victim.  

MISDEMEANORS

Arraignment

At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge: guilty, nolo conetendere (no contest) or not guilty.  If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the Judge may sentence the defendant immediatley or the case may be continued for a future sentencing date, which will give the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence report including background information about the defendant and the crime, make a sentencing recommendation, etc.  If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a setting or pre-trial conference.

Pretrial Proceedings

Many events can occur prior to trial. There are case discussions involving the Judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. The focus is on possibly resolving the case short of trial. Depending on the nature of the case, there may be pre-trial hearings on Constitutional issues (confessions, searches, identification, etc.). The issues are presented to the Court through written “motions” (e.g., Motion to Suppress Evidence, etc.). The judge must determine whether evidence will be admitted or suppressed at the defendant’s trial, whether there is some legal reason why the defendant should not be tried, or decide other ground rules for trial.

Trial (Judge or Jury)

A trial is an adversary proceeding in which the prosecutor must present evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor calls all the witnesses necessary to prove the crime. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence or to present any evidence, but may challenge the accuracy of the prosecutor’s evidence. Both the defendant and the prosecutor (representing the People of the State of California) have the right to a trial by a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury; this is called a “court trial”. In a jury trial, the jury is the “trier of fact”; in a court trial, the judge is. After the evidence is presented, the judge or a jury will determine whether the evidence proved that the defendant committed the crime.

FELONIES

Arraignment

At a felony arraignment, the defendant enters a plea to the charge: guilty or not guilty, The defendant is advised of his right to a preliminary examination within 14 days of the arraignment. If the defendant requests a court-appointed attorney, the court will review that request at the time of the arraignment.

Preliminary Hearing

This is a contested hearing before a Judge, sometimes called a “probable cause hearing”. The prosecutor presents witnesses to the Judge to show that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. Because the burden of proof is lower than at a trial, the prosecutor generally does not call all potential witnesses to testify at the “prelim”; generally, the victim and some eye witnesses plus some of the police witnesses may testify. The defendant has an attorney, can cross examine the witnesses, and can present his own evidence (including witnesses). If probable cause is established, the defendant is “bound over” for trial. If the Judge decides that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, the charge can be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor. A defendant can decide not to have a Preliminary Examination.

Arraignment on the Information

After the case is “bound over” as a felony, the defendant is again arraigned (given formal notice of the charges against him or her). The charging document is called an Information. He or she is again advised of his/her constitutional rights, and enters a plea to the charge.

Additional Pretrial Proceedings

As with misdemeanors, the Judge is called upon to resolve various pre-trial issues, some of which determine whether the case will continue to a trial, be resolved with a plea, or be dismissed.

Trial (Judge or Jury)

A trial is an adversary proceeding in which the prosecutor must present evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor calls all the witnesses necessary to prove the crime. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence or to present any evidence, but may challenge the accuracy of the prosecutor’s evidence. Both the defendant and the prosecutor (representing the People of the State of California) have the right to a trial by a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury; this is called a “court trial”. In a jury trial, the jury is the “trier of fact”; in a court trial, the judge is. After the evidence is presented, the judge or a jury will determine whether the evidence proved that the defendant committed the crime.

Pre-Sentence Investigation and Report

The probation department prepares a report for the judge summarizing the crime, and the defendant’s personal and criminal backgrounds. Generally, the victim is contacted for a recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report with a recommended sentence.

Sentencing

Sentencing in California varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the criminal process. Most often, sentences are at the judge’s discretion. At the time of sentencing, the judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report before determining the sentence. The parties may correct factual errors in the pre-sentence report and offer additional evidence relevant to the judge’s sentencing decision. The judge will consult the “sentencing guidelines” in the California Rules of Court (Established as a reference for framing an appropriate sentence throughout the state, considering factors of the crime and the defendant’s criminal background) to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. The judge may consider different alternatives, such as a fine, probation, community service, a sentence to jail or prison, or a combination. The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm.