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Jul 09, 2019

What is the Process After Criminal Charges are Filed in Court?

If you’ve been arrested for a crime in California, then you may be at a loss about what comes next. It’s natural to ask, “What is the process after criminal charges are filed in court?” For the purpose of answering this question, let’s say that Jeremy and Linda were arrested near a bank on a Friday night for robbing someone who had just used the ATM. What happens next?

Jeremy and Linda are taken to jail. Police officers write arrest reports, which document what they saw, what witnesses reported, and that they arrested Jeremy and Linda for robbery. The report is given to the district attorney, who then determines whether or not to file charges against Jeremy and Linda and, if charges are warranted, which charges to file. For crimes that are considered “wobblers,” the prosecutor can also decide whether to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or a felony. Even though Jeremy and Linda were arrested for robbery, they can be charged with additional or different crimes.

If Jeremy and Linda are in jail, then the prosecutor has 48 hours to file charges. That 48 hours doesn’t include holidays and weekends. Because they were arrested on Friday night, it could be Tuesday or Wednesday before charges are filed. It’s in Jeremy’s and Linda’s best interest to hire Bay Area criminal defense attorneys as soon as they’re arrested. While it might seem counterintuitive, they should each hire their own Bay Area criminal defense lawyer. That’s because their legal interests might not align, and each wants to make sure that their attorney will fight on their behalf should Jeremy’s and Linda’s interests diverge.

The Arraignment

After the district attorney files criminal charges in court, Jeremy and Linda are scheduled for their arraignment. Their legal route might be the same, in that they may be co-defendants together. This is called a joinder. Their attorneys or the prosecutor can ask that the cases be separated, and the judge can grant that request. Even if the case is initially joined, that joinder can be severed at a later date.

During the arraignment, Jeremy and Linda are each told about the crimes they are being charged with and are told about their rights. Each of them are also asked how they plea to the charges. The choices are guilty, not guilty, and nolo contendere. Nolo contendere, also known as “no contest,” means that you’re not disputing the charges but that you’re also not pleading guilty. Their Bay Area criminal defense attorneys are there to guide them through the plea portion of their arraignment – likely advising that they plead not guilty. If they haven’t yet retained lawyers, the judge asks each of them if they have a lawyer and tells them that, if they don’t have the resources to retain one, attorneys will be appointed to handle their cases.

After Jeremy’s plea is entered, the judge releases him on his own recognizance, decides upon the amount of his bail, or opts not to set bail. If Jeremy is allowed to post bail, he goes back to jail until bond can be posted. Typically, a bail bonds agent agrees to post bail on Jeremy’s behalf in exchange for a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent of the bond. It’s common for a bail bonds agent to require that property is put up for collateral, that there is a cosigner for bail, or both.

While each county has its own bail guidelines, judges also have discretion in setting bail. If Jeremy is charged with first degree robbery in Alameda County, the bail guidelines say that his bail should be set at $100,000. That means that Jeremy or his family have to come up with $10,000 for a bail bonds agent. For other types of crimes, if Jeremy has no prior criminal history, has few financial resources, and the judge doesn’t believe that Jeremy is a risk to public safety, then the judge has discretion to lower the bail amount. But because robbery is considered a “serious felony,” by law there are only a few circumstances under which the amount of bail can be reduced.

On the other hand, the judge may see that Jeremy is originally from Florida and has family there, and then decide that Jeremy is a flight risk and needs to stay in jail.

After the judge makes a determination about Jeremy, Linda enters her plea and the judge decides whether to release her, set bail, or hold her in jail. The judge may see that Linda has small children and decide that she isn’t a flight risk. As a result, Linda he may release her on her own recognizance.

Bail Reform in California

In August 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a sweeping bail reform bill that ended cash bail. Instead, the courts were instructed to design and implement a system based on risk assessments that categorize defendants as low risk, medium risk, or high risk. Defendants are to be released on their own recognizance or held in jail pending trial based on the assessments. Although that law was set to go into effect in October 2019, a ballot initiative supported by the bail bonds industry collected enough signatures to put the measure on the November 2020 ballot.

Plea Negotiations

Virtually everyone has heard of a plea bargain – admitting guilt to a lesser offense. Skilled Bay Area criminal defense attorneys have experience in negotiating the best possible plea agreements for their clients.

Plea negotiations can be a win-win for both the prosecution and the defense. That’s because prosecutors have enormous caseloads, jails and prisons are overcrowded, and courts are overburdened. It costs the State of California thousands of dollars a day to prosecute a case. So, it’s in the best interest of a prosecutor to strike a deal rather than go to trial. Savvy criminal defenses lawyers use this knowledge to get a favorable outcome for their client even when there is strong evidence against them.

Let’s say that Jeremy’s attorney talks to the district attorney about Jeremy’s case. The DA wants to charge Jeremy with first-degree robbery with a sentencing enhancement for using a gun. First-degree robbery carries a sentence of three, four, or six years, along with an additional ten years for using a gun. Jeremy’s defense attorney argues that it’s Jeremy’s first offense and that the gun wasn’t loaded. He proposes that the DA drop the charges to second-degree robbery. A second-degree robbery conviction carries a sentence of two, three, or five years – but it can also lead to probation for three to five years instead of prison time.

It’s important to note that a Bay Area criminal defense attorney can negotiate both the charges and the sentence. While the judge has the final say on the sentence, the district attorney’s recommendation counts. The DA and Jeremy’s attorney come to an agreement that Jeremy will be offered the opportunity to plead guilty to second-degree robbery and that the DA will recommend probation, community service, and victim restitution as the sentence. Jeremy’s attorney presents this option to Jeremy, and it’s up to Jeremy to decide whether he wants to accept the plea agreement or go to trial.

In the meantime, Linda’s attorney is also negotiating with the district attorney’s office. Although Linda is being charged with first-degree robbery, her attorney argues that Linda was just driving the car and didn’t know that Jeremy was robbing someone at the ATM. Linda thought he was going to the ATM to withdraw money. If there isn’t evidence of Linda’s actual involvement in the robbery, the district attorney may opt to drop the charges altogether. If there is some evidence against Linda, then her attorney may be able to negotiate a lesser charge, such as being an accessory after the fact.

The Trial

If Jeremy chooses not to accept the plea agreement, his case will move through the criminal justice system. It’s worth noting, though, that the same or a different plea agreement can still be agreed upon before or even during the trial. The next steps are generally behind the scenes. Jeremy’s attorney has access to police reports, witness reports, and all of the other evidence that the prosecutor is planning to use against Jeremy. Jeremy’s attorney likely files motions to dismiss the case, to prevent certain evidence from being admitted at trial, and so forth.

Jeremy has the option of having a jury trial or a court trial. A jury trial is one where the prosecution and defense present their cases to a jury that decides Jeremy’s guilt or innocence, whereas a court trial is one where the cases are presented to a judge, who decides guilt or innocence.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. In California, a trial has to begin within 60 days of the defendant’s arraignment. If Jeremy’s case is complicated or his Bay Area criminal defense attorney needs more time to prepare, however, Jeremy can waive his right to a speedy trial.

Prior to the start of a jury trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney have the opportunity to select a jury. Once the jury is seated, the actual trial begins. During the trial, the prosecution and defense each give an opening statement. The lawyer from the district attorney’s office presents their case, enters evidence, and calls and questions witnesses. In Jeremy’s case, the prosecution may question the arresting officer, the detective, and the person who says they were robbed, among others. Video from the ATM camera might be entered as evidence, as might the gun and photographs of the money found when Jeremy was arrested. Jeremy’s attorney can cross-examine witnesses, poking holes in their stories and casting doubt in the minds of jurors. After the prosecution is finished, Jeremy’s attorney presents their defense. They will call their own witnesses and might recall some of the prosecution’s witnesses. At the end of the defense’s case, both sides present closing arguments.

In a jury trial, the judge then gives the jurors instructions about how to deliberate and what to consider and ignore in their deliberations. The jurors then retreat to the jury room to discuss the case and render a verdict. In a court trial, the judge considers the evidence and testimony to arrive at a decision about whether Jeremy is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the jury or judge finds Jeremy not guilty, Jeremy walks away. If he is found guilty, a sentencing hearing is scheduled. Jeremy’s attorney then compiles material and files a motion meant to convince the judge to hand down a lenient sentence. Following sentencing, Jeremy has the right to appeal the verdict. If he chooses to do so, then an appellate court will review the trial record to see if the judge made mistakes or if there wasn’t enough evidence to support the verdict.

Why You Need a Bay Area Criminal Defense Attorney

If you’re asking, “What is the process after criminal charges are filed in court?”, then you or your loved one likely needs a Bay Area criminal defense attorney. At every step in the criminal justice process, having an experienced lawyer by your side can mean the difference between a favorable and unfavorable outcome. A skilled attorney can enter into plea negotiations on your behalf, argue against incriminating evidence being presented at trial, and can intercede to prevent you from serving jail or prison time. The truth is, if you’re facing criminal charges, time is not on your side. The sooner you retain a Bay Area criminal defense lawyer, the sooner you will have someone who is fighting for your rights and fighting for your future.

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