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The Different Stages of the Criminal Court Process in the State of California

If you or someone you know has been recently charged with a crime, it is important to understand the criminal court process in California. The following information will provide a brief overview of the different stages in the California court process with regards to the County Superior Criminal Courts.

Early Stages of the Proceeding

Once a person has been detained for a crime, the initial court appearance will take place at the arraignment.

During this process, the judge will tell the defendant what his or her charges are and applicable rights. The judge will also inform the defendant of his or her right to an attorney. A California arraignment is the defendant’s first opportunity to enter a plea. The most commonly known pleas involve:

  1. A guilty plea,
  2. Not guilty plea, and
  3. Nolo contendere (also known as no contest)

Once the defendant has entered a plea, the judge will either release the defendant with a promise to return, which is referred to as own recognizance. The judge may also decide to set a bail and keep the defendant in custody until the bail has been posted or could refuse the defendant’s bail and keep the defendant in custody.

Bail Bonds and Bail Hearings

A bail allows a defendant the opportunity to post money to help ensure that he or she will attend future court appearances. During a bail hearing, a defendant can present elements that could help him or her lower or remove the set bail. Before a decision is made, however, the overseeing judge will also consider outside factors with regard to the defendant’s background. Some of these could include the following:

  • Criminal record,
  • Seriousness of the crime,
  • Community involvement,
  • Likelihood of being present in future hearings, and
  • The public’s safety

The Pretrial Process

Once a defendant has entered a not guilty plea, the pretrial process will commence. In this stage of the criminal court process, the following may occur:

  • Court attendances,
  • Motions,
  • Discovery,
  • Plea bargains and/or other negotiations

The process will continue depending on the defendant’s misdemeanor or felony charges.

Misdemeanor Cases – After the Arraignment

If the case involves a misdemeanor charge and the defendant has entered a not guilty plea, the following will occur between the time after the arraignment but before the trial commences:

  • Discovery – Here, the defense and the prosecution will exchange critical information regarding the case. While defendants are limited to the access of information, their attorneys usually have access to the complete file. This is generally done to protect the identity of witnesses to the case.
  • Pretrial Motions – The defense or prosecution can file pretrial motions, which include setting the complaint aside, dismissing the case, and preventing any evidence from being used in the trial.
  • Change of Plea – Here, the defendant has the opportunity to change the plea to no contest or guilty.
  • Case Negotiations – Finally, both sides can discuss how the criminal case can be resolved without having the case go to trial.

Felony Cases – After the Arraignment

In a criminal felony case, in the event that the case is not settled or is dismissed, the overseeing judge will hold a preliminary hearing. During the preliminary hearing, the judge will make a decision on whether there is sufficient evidence that the defendant has committed a criminal act in order to have the defendant appear for trial. If it has been decided that there is enough information, the prosecutor will file what is known as The Information. Once this is done, the defendant will once again be arraigned based on this document. Finally, the defendant will enter a plea and the case will proceed to trial. Similar to a misdemeanor case, before entering the trial, the following will take place:

  • Discovery – Both sides will exchange information about the case.
  • Pretrial Motions – Either side will have the ability to file a pretrial motion to set aside the complaint, to dismiss the criminal case, and/or prevent any evidence from being used during the trial.
  • Change of Plea – The defendant has the ability to change his or her plea to no contest or guilty.
  • Case Negotiations – The sides will discuss the case and attempt a resolution without the need to go to trial.


In cases that are not resolved during the pretrial process will move toward the trial stage of the criminal court proceedings. In the State of California, there are only two types of trials:

  1. Jury Trials – A person’s right to a jury trial is defined in Section 16 of Article I of the California Constitution. In California, trials are comprised of 12 members of the community in which the defendant is accused to have committed the crime. In order to have a conviction, the selected jury of the defendant’s peers will need to unanimously agree to the guilty verdict. For the most part, defendants will opt for a jury trial because it offers an opportunity to have their peers hear the evidence against them and have them make the decision on the verdict.
  2. Bench Trials – Bench trials in California are routinely referred to as court trials and these involve a judge who acts as both judge and jury in the case. These trials are rarely chosen but they do offer certain incentives to those who choose this route.

California trials will typically proceed as follows:

  • Jury selections,
  • Opening statements by the defense and prosecution,
  • Presentations of evidence,
  • Closing arguments by defense and prosecution,
  • Jury deliberations,
  • The verdict, and if needed,
  • The defendant’s sentencing

Seek the Skill of an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or someone you know has recently been charged with a crime, it is important to know that every person in the United States facing incarceration is entitled to an attorney. When your freedom is at stake, it is important to consider hiring a professional criminal defense attorney who has extensive experience in the field.

The attorneys at Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, LLP are highly skilled in criminal defense cases in the State of California. The firm is dedicated to vigorously representing the rights of defendants in a court of law. Criminal defense cases in the State of California demand due diligence and careful examination of the evidence; seek the support of a competent attorney who will champion on your behalf.

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Stephen Levine, is a Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Defense — an honor achieved by only the top criminal law attorneys in California. Mr. Levine has over 40 years of experience in criminal defense and family law serving Southern California, and is a highly regarded Super Lawyer as well as AV Rated attorney.