What to Expect on Your First Day in a California Criminal Court
Your first hearing is called the "Arraignment." You will be arraigned on the "Complaint." The Complaint is a list of Charges which are crimes that will list the "elements" of the offenses, and the dates, times and victims (if any).
If you are not in jail, you will come to court and wait with a group of other people who have also been charged with an offense, or multiple offenses. If you have never been to court it will be a learning experience.
When your name is called you will step up to the gate or to the counsel table (depending on your court's practice" and you will be provided with a copy of the Complaint. You will be asked if your name is on the Complaint and you will be asked if you understand the charges against you. These will often be read to you. Now is not the time to protest the charges, and argue that you are wrongfully charged. You will have time to do that later. The Judge does not want to hear you say anything about the facts because they don't want you to incriminate yourself.
Everyone Gets a Lawyer
If you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony you are GUARANTEED a lawyer - but not for infractions (most traffic tickets). If you can't afford one, the Judge will ask you a series of questions to determine how poor you really are, and you meet the criteria, then one will be appointed from the Public Defender's Office. If you have co-defendants, then one will get the Public Defender and the others will get court-appointed attorneys. If you don't like your public defender or appointed lawyer, you can always hire a private attorney (if you can beg or borrow the money) - but don't wait too long, if that becomes your intent.
Dressing Well is Important
It is in your best interest to dress conservatively. Dress like you would when applying for an office job. A suit and tie are not necessary, but I always advise my clients to wear a white button-down shirt or a light blue shirt. Wear what you would wear to church, if you go to church. For women, dress in a conservative dress, or outfit with a minimum amount of make-up and a neat conservative hair style. Although we may not want to "judge a book by its cover" this will be the time that the Judge or the Prosecutor will make a decision on how to proceed on your case. Thus, how you look is very important.
It is also in your best interest to maintain a respectful attitude at all times. State the word "yes" or "no" clearly. Use the honorifics "Sir" and "Madame" - you will gain extra points if you address the judge as "your honor."
Once you have been arraigned and a lawyer has been appointed you will be given another date to appear in court. If it is a misdemeanor case then you will come back for a pretrial. With certain misdemeanors you will not need to appear at these hearings if you have retained a lawyer. Most courts that have appointed you a lawyer or have provided you with a public defender will also require that you appear. Although, technically, this is not legally justified, this is what most judges consider a fair trade-off. Since you get a free lawyer, you are required to appear. Pretrials allows your lawyer to get discovery (that is evidence that the prosecution provides - like police reports, etc.). Pretrials are also used for negotiation. Ultimately if you don't take a deal your case will be set for Trial.
With a felony case, the next hearing is the pre-preliminary hearing. Then a preliminary hearing. Then an arraignment on the "Information" if you are "held to answer" at the preliminary hearing. The "Information" is just like the Complaint, however, charges may be dismissed, depending on what happens at the hearing or if your lawyer successfully argues a CPC 995 motion. However, sometimes charges are added - this is usually a rare occasion. But as you might imagine, if you are charged with Assault with Great Bodily Injury, and the victim dies, then murder charges or homicide charges may be developed during the preliminary hearing.
Although our legal system is far from perfect, be grateful that you have the protection of our Constitutions - everyone in this country, whether they are a U.S. Citizen or not, are protected by both the U.S. Constitution and the respective State Constitutions. Consider that in many countries you are guilty until proven innocent. Here, the government has the burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, you are innocent until proven guilty.