A lot happens before a case reaches the point of entering the court system. A criminal case has several stages starting from police investigation up to sentencing after a conviction. The stages can take from a few seconds in court on up to several court appearances spread out over months or even years. The best resolutions take time and careful consideration of the facts or discovery (evidence).
What are the stages of a criminal case?
It's crucial to understand the stages of a criminal case so that you can protect your rights:
Police Investigation: The first step is when law enforcement gets information of a potential criminal act. They act on it by conducting an investigation. That may include questioning witnesses and the suspect. When the police call you, they aren't wanting to invite you for a friendly chat and possibly a BBQ. Remember, their job is to discover evidence so they can make an arrest. There is no such thing as casual conversation when law enforcement attempts a communication with you, whether it's in person or by phone. The problem with this is that even innocent people who are trying to help the police with their investigation can misspeak and inadvertently make themselves a suspect. Contacting a criminal defense attorney before an arrest is made can help any mistakes with misspeaking. You can always tell the truth through your attorney, but it's virtually impossible to take back what you didn't mean to say. By invoking your Constitutional Right to an attorney, you can prevent an arrest.
Arrest by Law Enforcement: When the police find enough evidence to show that it was more likely than not that you did the criminal act, there will be an arrest. Their standard of proof is much less than what the prosecutor will need for a conviction. All the police need to show is that it's more than likely you did something. Minor crimes will be charged as misdemeanors but more serious crimes are charged as felonies.When they approach you, remain polite but silent. Don't argue, fight, resist or threaten anyone. Just politely ask if you're free to go. If you're not free to go, simply ask to speak to an attorney and remain silent. You do have to say "I want a lawyer and I wish to remain silent" in order to fully invoke your Constitutional rights. Just sitting there during questioning without saying you want a lawyer will presume you're not denying their allegations against you. The attorney for whom you asked can then help you with finding a bail agent, assist with bailing you out, and possibly try to reduce the bail amount or have you released on your own recognizance (OR'ed).
Arraignment in front of a judge: The suspect/defendant appears before the judge or magistrate to be formally charged with the charge(s) and goes from being a suspect to a defendant. During this stage, the defendant also officially appoints a lawyer for their case. Your lawyer can plead to the charges for you, modify bail amount and/or terms, and schedule court dates for future stages. We always plead not guilty to the charges, deny any and all allegations and maintain your rights. This way, we can move forward with a defense. If you plead guilty, it all stops here and you fast-forward to sentencing. If you are an immigrant who is not yet a US citizen, it is imperative that you meet with an attorney before your arraignment.
Warrants for Failure to Appear (FTA): If you miss your court date or arraignment, the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest.
Preliminary Hearing: The prosecutor will present evidence to the judge/court proving that the case should move forward to trial stage. Basically that enough evidence exists to see if you are truly guilty or not guilty. Your attorney can cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution to disprove claims and attempt to prevent a trial. Unfortunately, you will not be able to bring in witnesses at this stage. Your will be allowed to bring your witnesses during your trial.
Plea Bargaining/Negotiation with the District Attorney: This stage can begin as early as the arraignment stage if there is enough time and opportunity to discuss the case with the prosecutor. Plea bargaining involves you pleading guilty to a lesser charge rather than facing trial for your more serious charge(s). The outcome of a plea bargain could be that you avoid jail or prison time, have your charges reduced, have less probation and possibly have the charge(s) dismissed altogether after successful completion of a diversion program.
Trial: The court will move forward with trial when parties fail to come together on a resolution which satisfies both the People (prosecutor) and the defense. At trial, each side gets to bring their own witness(es) and evidence. Each side gets to questions the other side's witnesses. Unlike the movies, there are no surprises in a real trial. No one will barge in at the middle of trial and scream something about being an alibi or witness to a crime. Each side gives a list of their witnesses to the other side well before the trial.
Sentencing: If the defendant is found guilty by the trier of facts (judge in a bench trial or jurors in a jury trial), the case moves to the sentencing stage. Here, once again, each side will attempt to argue why the penalty should be less severe or very harsh. Prosecution usually asks for the heaviest penalty and we will attempt to argue mitigating facts or mitigating circumstance to warrant a less severe punishment.
You will need an experienced, aggressive and compassionate attorney to assist you throughout these stages of a criminal case. Changing attorneys in the middle of any of these steps or stages can complicate things and it'll be virtually impossible to undo another attorney's errors. Setting up the best course of action for your defense at the beginning is where most of the progress is made for the best outcome possible.
The information in this blog is for academic purposes only and not to be deemed legal advice. Please contact our office at (714) 321-9999 to make an appointment to discuss your specific questions.