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Orientation To The Criminal Justice System
Introduction

 

As a victim or witness to a crime, your help is vital to our system of criminal justice. Without such cooperation, our system cannot function efficiently and guarantee a fair trial based on the full presentation of all the facts.

 

The process of justice takes time, so your patience and commitment are also essential. The following information will explain what happens in bringing a case to trial so that you may better understand the proceedings and inconveniences that may occur in the case involving you.

 

Remember, it’s very important to keep the District Attorney’s Office informed of your current address and telephone number so you can be contacted about a pending case. If you move or are temporarily available at a new location or phone, please notify the District Attorney’s Office immediately.

        What is a subpoena?

          What is a Preliminary Hearing?

          What is a Felony Trial?

          What is a Misdemeanor Trial?

          Testimony

          The Defense Attorney

          The Verdict

          What happens after the Trial?

What is a subpoena?

A subpoena is a court order directing you to be present at the time and place stated. You may receive your subpoena in person or by mail. After receipt of the subpoena, contact the District Attorney’s Office.

 

Court hearings do not always take place at the precise time scheduled. Calendar conflicts, the unavailability of an essential witness, or a legal motion may cause your case to be delayed or “continued.” Whenever possible, arrangements will be made to place you “on-call” or “telephone standby.” This means that you may continue your normal daily business, but you must be able to come to court immediately when called by the District Attorney’s Office.

 

Your subpoena will indicate the type of hearing at which you will be appearing. Please bring your subpoena with you to court.

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What is a Preliminary Hearing?

In felony cases, your first appearance may be for the preliminary examination. This is not a trial, but a hearing at which a judge listens to the evidence of the crime and determines whether it is sufficient to require the defendant to stand trial in Superior Court. Normally, just enough evidence is presented to “hold the defendant to answer” in Superior Court. Witnesses are subpoenaed to testify at these hearings. No jurors will be present, since the judge alone decides if the defendant should be required to stand trial on the charges.

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What is a Felony Trial?

The trial of a felony case will generally occur 45 days or more after the preliminary hearing. California law requires that a defendant with a felony be brought to trial within 60 days of the filing of the Information or Indictment in Superior Court, unless that right is waived by the accused. Thus, in some cases this time could extend to several months.

Witnesses must also testify at trial, even though they were thoroughly questioned at the preliminary hearing. In some cases, a trial will not be held because the defendant pleads guilty. When this happens, you will be notified that your testimony will not be required, and you will be released from your obligation under the subpoena to come to court.

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What is a Misdemeanor Trial?

In misdemeanor cases, there is no preliminary hearing. Your first appearance at court will be the actual trial. Therefore, your testimony will be required only once.

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Testimony.  

In your appearance as a witness, you will be called by a Deputy District Attorney to testify regarding what you saw, heard or did which may be relevant to the charges against the defendant. After the District Attorney has asked questions, the defense attorney has the right to test your memory of the facts, or “cross-examine” you.

You may be excluded from the court room when other witnesses are testifying. This is to ensure that the testimony or memory of one witness does not influence the testimony of another.

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The Defense Attorney.

Witnesses are sometimes requested by the defense attorneys to give interviews so that the defendant and his attorney know what the evidence in the case will be. If you receive such a request you may discuss it with the Deputy District Attorney responsible for your case. There are no laws or rules prohibiting you from telling the defendant’s attorney your testimony before you take the stand. This is your decision and you should not feel pressured to speak or not to speak to anyone about the case. If you choose to speak to the defense attorney, you may wish to have an additional person present or a tape recording made to avoid later misunderstandings and misquotations.

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The Verdict.  

You may wait to see the verdict in your case after all testimony is completed, or you will be notified of the outcome of all felony cases by letter. To find out the result of a misdemeanor case, please call the District Attorney’s Office.

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What happens after the Trial?

The defendant will be found either guilty or not guilty of the crime. If the jury cannot reach a verdict, a mistrial will be declared and there may be a new trial. If the accused is found guilty, a date will be set for sentencing, usually 28 days after the verdict.

The Judge may impose one or more of the following sentences:

- State Prison

- County Jail

- Probation

- Fine Restitution

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Anatomy Of A Prosecution

          
          Crime Committed, Crime Reported, Police Investigate
          Police Make an Arrest/Request a Warrant

Warrant/Charging Request Reviewed by Prosecutor

          Warrant Issued
          Suspect Arrested (if not already in custody)
          Arraignment
          Misdemeanor
          Pretrial Proceedings
          Felony
          Preliminary Hearing
          Second Arraignment
          Additional Pretrial Proceedings
          Trial (Judge or Jury)
          Pre-Sentence Investigation and Report
Sentencing
 
 
Crime Committed, Crime Reported, Police Investigate
Investigation may include interviewing victim, witnesses, suspects... collecting physical evidence... visiting, viewing, photographing, measuring crime scene... identifying suspects through line-ups... etc.
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Police Make an Arrest/Request a Warrant
When a crime is committed in a police officer’s presence, or he has probable cause to believe that certain misdemeanors or any felony was committed that he did not see happen, an officer may arrest a suspect on the spot without an arrest warrant. The officer will later submit a charging/warrant request to the District Attorney’s Office, suggesting potential charges to be authorized.
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Warrant/Charging Request Reviewed by Prosecutor
Most cases begin with a warrant request. This is generally the first time that a prosecutor is involved in a case, unless he reviewed a search warrant or visited the crime scene. At this stage, the prosecutor determines whether a person should be charged with a crime and, if so, what the crime should be. The prosecutor thoroughly reviews all reports and records concerning the case, including witness statements. The prosecutor also reviews the suspect’s prior criminal or traffic record. Occasionally, the reviewing prosecutor sends the case back to the police to conduct additional investigation.
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Warrant Issued
The prosecutor can file a charge if he reasonably believes that probable cause exists that the suspect committed the offense, and he reasonably believes the charge can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial with the information known at that time.
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Suspect Arrested (if not already in custody)
The delay between the crime date and the defendant’s arrest on an authorized charge can take any length of time (e.g., if the defendant’s whereabouts are unknown, or if he/she has left the State of California).
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Arraignment
This is the first court appearance for any misdemeanor or felony. Once arrested and charged with a felony, the suspect appears in Court for arraignment. At arraignment, the defendant is told what crime he/she is charged with, and is advised of his constitutional rights to a jury or court trial, appointed attorney, presumption of innocence, etc. The charging document is called a Complaint. The conditions and amount of bail are determined. In some cases, generally based on the nature of the charge, the Judge imposes conditions on bail, such as “no contact” with the victim. Bail is set in almost every case, but it is up to the defendant’s own resources to post the bail money, which allows him to be released. All further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor:
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Misdemeanor
At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge: plead guilty, plead not guilty, or stand mute (i.e., remain silent, which is treated by the court as if the defendant pled not guilty). If he pleads guilty or no contest, the Judge may sentence him on the spot or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date, which will give the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence report including background information about the defendant and the crime, make a sentencing recommendation, etc. If the defendant stands mute or pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference.
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Pretrial Proceedings
Many events can occur prior to trial. There are case discussions involving the Judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. The focus is on possibly resolving the case short of trial. Depending on the nature of the case, there may be pre-trial hearings on Constitutional issues (confessions, searches, identification, etc.). The issues are presented to the Court through written “motions” (e.g., Motion to Suppress Evidence, etc.). The judge must determine whether evidence will be admitted or suppressed at the defendant’s trial, whether there is some legal reason why the defendant should not be tried, or decide other ground rules for trial.
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Felony
At a felony arraignment, the defendant enters a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty, stand mute). He is advised of his right to a preliminary examination within 14 days of the arraignment. If the defendant requests a court-appointed attorney, the court will review that request at the time of the arraignment.
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Preliminary Hearing
This is a contested hearing before a Judge, sometimes called a “probable cause hearing”. The prosecutor presents witnesses to convince the Judge that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. Because the burden of proof is much less than at a trial, the prosecutor generally does not call all potential witnesses to testify at the “prelim”; generally, the victim and some eye witnesses plus some of the police witnesses may testify. The defendant has an attorney, can cross examine the witnesses, and can present his own evidence (including witnesses). If probable cause is established, the defendant is “bound over” for trial. If the Judge decides that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, the charge can be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor for trial in Court. A defendant can decide not to have a Preliminary Examination.
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          Second Arraignment
After the case is “bound over” for a felony trial, the defendant is again arraigned (given formal notice of the charges against him or her). The charging document is called an Information. He or she is again advised of his/her constitutional rights, and enters a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty or stand mute).
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Additional Pretrial Proceedings
As with misdemeanors, the Judge is called upon to resolve various pre-trial issues, some of which determine whether the case will continue to a trial, be resolved with a plea, or be dismissed.
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Trial (Judge or Jury)
A trial is an adversary proceeding in which the prosecutor must present evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor calls all the witnesses necessary to prove the crime. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence or to present any evidence, but may challenge the accuracy of the prosecutor’s evidence. Both the defendant and the prosecutor (representing the People of the State of California) have the right to a trial by a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury; this is called a “court trial”. In a jury trial, the jury is the “trier of fact”; in a court trial, the judge is. After the evidence is presented, the judge or a jury will determine whether the evidence proved that the defendant committed the crime.
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Pre-Sentence Investigation and Report
The probation department prepares a report for the judge summarizing the crime, and the defendant’s personal and criminal backgrounds. Generally, the victim is contacted for a recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report with a recommended sentence.
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Sentencing
Sentencing in California varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the criminal process. Most often, sentences are at the judge’s discretion. At the time of sentencing, the judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report before determining the sentence. The parties may correct factual errors in the pre-sentence report and offer additional evidence relevant to the judge’s sentencing decision. The judge will consult the “sentencing guidelines” in the California Rules of Court (Established as a reference for framing an appropriate sentence throughout the state, considering factors of the crime and the defendant’s criminal background) to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. The judge may consider different alternatives, such as a fine, probation, community service, a sentence to jail or prison, or a combination. The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm.
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Fundamentals Of A Jury Trial

          Jury Selection
 
     Residents of Butte County are randomly selected for jury service, and are summoned to the Court as potential jurors; a blind draw selects twelve people from that group; the Judge, prosecutor and defense attorney question the jurors about their backgrounds and beliefs; the attorneys are permitted a limited number of “peremptory” challenges to various jurors (or an unlimited number of challenges for good cause); after twelve acceptable jurors remain, the Judge administers an oath to the jury and reads basic instructions about the trial process, etc.;
 
          - Prosecutor gives an opening statement to outline his case and evidence to the jury;
          - Defense may give a similar opening statement, or wait until later in the trial;
          - Prosecutor calls his witnesses, which the defense may cross examine;
          - Prosecutor rests;
          - Defense may call witnesses, if it wants, and the prosecutor may cross-examine them;
          - Defense rests;
          - Prosecutor may present “rebuttal” witnesses/evidence to challenge evidence presented
            by the defendant;
          - Prosecutor rests;
          - Prosecutor presents a closing argument to the jury;
          - Defense presents a closing argument to the jury;
          - Prosecutor may present a rebuttal argument to the jury to respond to the defense
            closing argument;
          - The judge gives the jury detailed legal instructions about the charged crimes, the
            deliberation process, etc.;
          - Jury deliberates and returns a verdict.


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