Your Los Angeles Criminal Case: The Basics
Criminal charges should never be taken lightly. Even a simple DUI can carry serious financial repercussions and up to one year in jail. To make matters worse, the California criminal justice system isn't exactly known for its efficiency. To help you navigate the murky waters of California criminal law, we have created a guide to preparing for your Los Angeles criminal case.
The rear seat of an LAPD cruiser is not an enviable position under any circumstances. You have been placed in handcuffs and arrested, and now you are being driven to the nearest jail in Los Angeles County. This is where individuals who are awaiting trial or who are serving less than a one-year sentence reside. Depending on the charges against you, it may or may not be a temporary stop.
Once you arrive, you will be led to "booking" where the jail staff will search you and confiscate your personal belongings until your release. The staff will ask some basic biographical questions and take your fingerprints before leading you to a cell. Sooner or later, you will be given an opportunity to make a telephone call. It would be wise to contact someone you trust who could post bail or otherwise arrange your release.
Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution prevents California from holding you in jail indefinitely. Within 48 hours, you will attend an arraignment where the judge will formally read the charges against you and set bail.
Finally, many criminal cases don't begin with an immediate arrest. Instead, in many cases, you'll be given a ticket informing you of the charges and your next court date, most likely your arraignment. You should take this court date very seriously, as "failure to appear" is a misdemeanor in itself.
An arraignment is a formal reading of the charges against you. It's also your first opportunity to enter a plea. It is often in your best interests to enter a plea of "not guilty," as you have not had the chance to see the evidence against you, speak with an attorney, consider possible defenses, or negotiate a plea bargain.
Your arraignment could take place in any one of Los Angeles' many courthouses. Defense attorneys will most likely be present but will probably not have time to speak with you about your case in any depth. After your charges are read and you have entered a plea, the judge will either release you or set the bail amount.
Instead of sitting in jail until your trial, you will often be offered an opportunity to post bail in exchange for your release. Bail is a monetary deposit that ensures you will not flee the jurisdiction once you are released. If you show up to all of your court dates, the bail amount will be returned to you after the matter is resolved. On the other hand, if you miss an appearance, bail will be forfeited. If you are unable to post bail, try contacting a bail bond company. Bail bond companies typically will loan you the full amount of the bail in exchange for ten percent.
The first thing on your mind after being released is probably speaking with a criminal defense attorney. You have a constitutional right to defense counsel. That means you have the right to be represented by an attorney before you can be imprisoned for a period of more than six months.
Lawyers are expensive. If you lack the financial resources to hire a private attorney the State may appoint a Public Defender or an attorney in the Indigent Criminal Defense Program to avoid violating your constitutional rights.
If you've been charged with a felony or gross misdemeanor, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to justify holding a jury trial. The prosecutor must produce enough evidence to convince the judge that there's probable cause that you committed each charged crime.
In essence, a preliminary hearing is a mini-trial where you get a sneak peak of the strengths and weaknesses of the case against you. While it's possible that the charges will be reduced or dismissed entirely, it's more likely that the judge will find probable cause to hold you to answer for trial.
If your case was not settled by plea bargain, you have a constitutional right to trial by jury in all misdemeanor or felony criminal cases. Going to trial is a gamble for defendants: either you win big and are found not guilty, or you lose and are subject to punishment without the benefit of a favorable plea bargain. It is generally unwise to represent yourself at trial. There is an old saying among lawyers: "he who represents himself has a fool for a client."
The first step at trial is to select a jury. Twelve jurors must be selected for all criminal cases in California. Next, the attorneys will make opening statements and present evidence. Most evidence will be in the form of witness testimony, though recording, documents, maps or physical objects can be introduced into evidence as well.
The closing statement is your attorney's last chance to convince the jury of your innocence. During testimony evidence can merely be presented, but during argument lawyers are allowed to comment on the evidence and how it relates to the law.
The judge will then read jury instructions to the jury and give them a chance to deliberate in private. All twelve members of the jury must unanimously agree to convict you before you can be found guilty. If even one juror refuses to agree the case ends in a mistrial, a major victory for the defendant.