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Your San Francisco Criminal Case: The Basics

Last updated: October 9, 2013

We've all heard or read about the shenanigans that take place in San Francisco. The city is known for its open-mindedness to the colorful, but, on occasion, San Franciscans do get into real trouble. If you've been arrested in San Francisco and are facing criminal charges, this helpful guide will give you the information about what's ahead in your criminal case.

Arrest, Booking and Release or Detention

If you've been arrested in San Francisco, it's likely that you were picked up by SFPD and put in the back of a police cruiser. In order for an officer to arrest you, he or she must have probable cause to believe that you committed a crime. Then, as most of us know from TV crime dramas, the officer will likely read you your Miranda rights. But what happens after that?

You'll likely be taken to San Francisco County Jail #1 for "booking," where someone will ask you for your personal information and take your photograph and fingerprints. He or she will then review your record and the evidence against you to make a determination of whether you should be: 1) cited and released; 2) released on your own recognizance; 3) required to post bail before your release; or 4) held in the county jail until your arraignment.

Steps in a San Francisco Criminal Case

SFPD likely arrested you, but law enforcement officers don't charge crimes. It's up to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office to formally charge you based on the evidence available to it. Once you've been charged, there are steps that your criminal case will follow, from arraignment to appeal.

Arraignment: Your arraignment will generally take place within 48 hours of your arrest. This is when the judge tells you what you've been charged with and the possible sentences you could face if you're convicted. The judge will ask you if you have an attorney, and, if you can't afford a private attorney, the court may appoint a public defender to represent you.

Finally, the judge will ask you what you plead to the charges against you: guilty, not guilty or nolo contendre, meaning you agree to accept the penalty for the charge against you but you do not officially admit guilt.

Preliminary Hearing: If you've been charged with a felony, the judge will hold a preliminary hearing to consider whether there is enough evidence to support the charges against you. If the judge finds that there is indeed sufficient evidence to support the charges, he or she will send the case to the appropriate court for trial.

Pre-Trial Conference and Motions: In the days or months leading up to your trial, your attorney will collect the evidence surrounding the charges against you and build your defense. This may include making certain pre-trial motions, such as motions to compel the prosecution to supply evidence and motions to suppress evidence. Your attorney will also attend a pre-trial conference with the prosecution where he or she may negotiate a plea bargain that reduces the charges against you.

Trial: Many criminal cases never reach the trial stage. Sometimes the accused will agree to a plea bargain, and in some cases, the charges against the accused are dropped. If your case does make it to trial, it will likely be a trial by jury.

The trial will begin with opening statements from the prosecution and the defense. Each side will present evidence in the case, call and cross-examine witnesses, and make closing arguments. The judge will give jury instructions throughout the trial.

After deliberating, if the jury has come to a unanimous decision, the jury will announce its verdict. The jury may find you not guilty of all charges, in which case you'll be free to go. If the verdict is guilty, the judge will sentence you.

Sentencing: The judge will hold a sentencing hearing to decide what sentence to give you based on the crime for which you've been convicted and California sentencing laws. If you're interested in more information about particular crimes, FindLaw's section on California criminal laws contains articles about various crimes and their possible sentences.

Appeal: If you're convicted of a crime in a San Francisco Superior Court, you're entitled to appeal the decision to the First District Court of Appeal. In order to successfully appeal a criminal conviction, you must show that a serious error was made at your trial.