The beginning of the criminal judicial process usually starts with an arrest. Generally, this occurs near the time of the alleged crime. Other times an arrest warrant is issued for the suspect. An arrest can result in placing the accused in jail or citing an releases the accused by giving them notice of a future court date.
If an arrest or citation is not given, the prosecutor has the option of sending a letter the accused, requesting their attendance in court. If that person does not show then the prosecutor will seek an arrest warrant if one is not already in place.
An arraignment is a hearing where the accused receives the charging document. The charging document is either the Complaint, Indictment, or Information. (explained below). Usually the first arraignment is where the accused receives the Complaint. After the preliminary hearing the accused will have another arraignment on the Information. If the prosecutor seeks a Grand Jury Indictment, then the accused will be present at the arraignment on the Indictment.
In California, the charging document that lists the alleged violations of law is called a Complaint. It will list the name of the accused, the crimes alleged and the jurisdiction of where prosecution is sought. If the prosecutor presses charges, this document will be filed. If the prosecutor chooses not to file charges, this document is not filed.
Where the person is accused of committing a felony, the prosecutor is required to present evidence to a magistrate that there is probable cause. It is a very low standard of proof and all that is required is that the prosecutor show that particular crime occurred and the person accused is probably the responsible person. In California, the police can testify on behalf of witnesses at a preliminary hearing. Allowing police to testify on behalf of witnesses is an exception to the hearsay rule, applies only to preliminary hearings and was voted on by voters under Proposition 115 in 1990.
At the preliminary hearing the magistrate either (a) hold the accused to answer the charges at trial or (b) not hold the accused to answer. The prosecutor has 15 days after the preliminary hearing to file the next charging document. The post-preliminary hearing charging document is called an Information. It looks almost identical to a Complaint but it is technically different because it comes after the preliminary hearing. Most of the time the charges on the Information are the same as those on the Complaint, but sometimes there can be more charges or less charges. The amount of charges depends upon what evidence is presented at the preliminary hearing.
In California, the traditional route to prosecution is by filing a Complaint, having a preliminary hearing and then filing of an Information. However, the prosecutor has the option of skipping this process and seeking a Grand Jury Indictment. A Grand Jury is held in secret and the prosecutor presents evidence to that jury instead of a magistrate. The burden of proof is the same. After the Grand Jury listens to the evidence, they can chose whether to file charges. If charges are alleged by the Grand Jury then they are put on a charging document called an Indictment. If an Indictment is sought, then there is no preliminary hearing held. The prosecutor can seek an Indictment before or after the Complaint is filed.
Federal prosecutions always involve an Indictment, but that is for another discussion.
Other Court Dates
The arraignment, preliminary hearing and jury trial are the only court dates that are compulsory in the criminal justice system in California. However, every jurisdiction has their own court dates between the arraignment, the preliminary hearing and the jury trial. There are various names for these types of court dates. Often between the first arraignment and the preliminary hearing the dates are called "pre-preliminary" or "pre-trial " dates. Court dates after the preliminary hearing are sometimes called "pre-trial" or "readiness" conferences.
Whatever the name, those court dates are an opportunity to negotiate a resolution to the case. Resolution can mean anything from a plea to a dismissal, as every case is different.
Lastly, there are also court dates for motions. Motions are requests by the defense or prosecutor asking for the judge or magistrate to do certain things. Commonly, the defense asks for evidence to be suppressed or charges to be dismissed.
The jury trial is a trial in front of 12 people from the community who listen to the evidence and decide guilt. At the jury trial the prosecutor has the burden of proof to prove guilt. They must prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" to receive a conviction in the case. The prosecutor presents evidence and witnesses. The defense has the right to cross examine those witnesses and present their own witnesses. The defendant can testify on his or her own behalf but cannot be forced to testify. Ultimately the jury decides guilt. If the accused is found guilty, then the judge will sentence the accused according to sentencing guidelines and the judges discretion. If the accused is found not guilty, then they are free from the jurisdiction of the court, including being placed in custody on that case.
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