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How Criminal Cases Work

Posted by Seth Chazin | Jul 13, 2017 | 0 Comments

How Criminal Cases Work


The Arrest

When someone (defendant) is arrested, one of three things can happen:

        1. The defendant is released (if the district attorney/city attorney [prosecutor] decides not to file charges).
        2. The defendant is released based on a promise to appear in court for arraignment at a later date, or if the defendant posts bail (also known as “bond”). Under both circumstances, either the police or the district attorney office informs the defendant when to appear in court for arraignment.
        3. The defendant stays in jail and is later transported to the court by law enforcement officers for arraignment.

How a Case Starts

The police usually write a report summarizing all events leading to an arrest, including details pertaining to witness accounts and other relevant information.  This police report, also known as “discovery”, is not always complete however. This illustrates one of many reasons why it's important to have a lawyer present when the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor, or when you first learn of an active investigation. An experienced lawyer can negotiate to get the charges dropped or reduced before the case even goes to court.

The prosecutors are usually required to file charges within 48 hours of the arrest (excluding court holidays, mandatory court closure days, and weekends), as part of a defendant's right to a speedy trial. The deadline may vary based upon the time of day the defendant gets arrested, so talk to your defense attorney to find out exactly when the prosecutor's deadline to file charges will expire.

The Arraignment

At the arraignment (defendant's first appearance in court), the judge informs the defendant about:

  • Alleged Charges
  • Constitutional Rights
  • Right to an attorney provided by the court, if the defendant can't afford one.

The defendant can enter a plea by responding to the charges as:

  1. Guilty
  2. Not Guilty
  3. No Contest (also known as Nolo Contendere)

After the defendant responds to charges and enters a plea, which is almost always a not guilty plea, if the defendant was in custody at the time of arraignment, the judge will:

  1. Release the defendant on her/his “own recognizance” (the defendant's promise to return to court on a specified date) or some other condition of release.
  2. Refusing to set bail resulting in the defendant going back to jail, but only in murder cases and other unusual cases.
  3. Set bail* and send the defendant back to jail, until the bail amount is posted.

*“Bail” or “Bond” is property or money that a defendant puts up as a promise to return for future court dates. The bail amount is decided by the judge based upon the seriousness of the charges,  whether he/she is likely to not return to court or is a “flight risk” and whether the defendant is a risk to the safety of the community.

After the Arraignment

The defense and prosecution exchange information pertaining to the case, which is called discovery. Either side is entitled to file pre-trial motions, including motions to dismiss the case, prevent evidence from being used at trial, or motions to dismiss (set aside) the complaint. The defense attorney and the District Attorney will often negotiate in an effort to resolve the case without going to trial.


Other than with infractions, defendants in criminal cases maintain the right to have their peers decide their innocence or guilt. Therefore, before the trial, defendants can decide whether to go with a court trial (Judge's verdict) or to have a jury trial (where the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty). Usually, the defendant prefers a jury trial, as they prefer to be heard by a jury of their peers who can review the evidence and decide whether or not they are guilty. Only in unusual circumstances would a defense attorney recommend a court trial without a jury.

Anyone accused of a crime is legally considered innocent until proven otherwise, either by pleading guilty or proven guilty at a trial. It is the prosecutor's burden to convince the jury/judge that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Setting a Trial Date

For a jury trial (Misdemeanor Case):

The trial must begin within 30 days of plea, or arraignment (whichever is later) if the defendant is in custody, and within 45 days of plea, if the defendant wasn't in custody at the time of arraignment. (See section 1382 of the Penal Code).

For a jury trial (Felony Case):

If the defendant exercises his right to a speedy trial, the trial must begin within 60 days of the arraignment following the filing of the information.  The law says how soon a defendant charged with a felony must be brought to trial. (See section 1382 of the Penal Code.)

At Trial

The process of jury selection by lawyers, before the trial starts, is called “Voir dire”. During the process the attorneys and the judge ask questions of the potential jurors to make sure they are fair and impartial. Before witnesses and evidence are provided to the selected jurors, both sides start with an opening statement.

  • During the trial, witnesses testify about what they know or saw, and after the the two lawyers closing statements, the jury renders a verdict as to whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.


Acquittal; if the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the defendant will be released and can't be tried for the same crime again, except for very unusual circumstances. A verdict of not guilty doesn't necessarily mean that the defendant's record will be totally clean. The arrest will still appear in the defendant's record.  The defendant can file a motion for a Declaration of Factual Innocence to entirely expunge his record (California Penal Code Section 851-8).

If the defendant is found guilty, he will be sentenced.  If the jury is deadlocked (hung jury), which means that the jury is split between a guilty and not guilty verdict, the case is declared a “mistrial” and a new trial may be scheduled or the charges may be dismissed.

If you or a loved one are under investigation, have been arrested, are unhappy with your current council and awaiting trial, or need post-conviction representation, contact the Law Offices of Seth Chazin. First consultations are always free.

About the Author

Seth Chazin

Seth P. Chazin has aggressively defended clients in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases for over 30 years. He has extensive experience representing criminal defendants in federal and state court, while handling both state and federal appeals as well.


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“The death penalty is a lie, a misguided mistake born of anger and frustration. Capital punishment has become a perverse monument to inequality, to how some lives matter and others do not. It is a violent example of how we protect and value the rich and abandon and devalue the poor. The death penalty is a grim, disturbing shadow formed by the legacy of racial apartheid and bias against the poor that condemns the disfavored among us, but corrupts us all. It’s the perverse symbol elected officials use to strengthen their ‘tough on crime’ reputations and distract us from confronting the causes of violence. It is finally the enemy of grace, redemption and all of us who recognize that each person is more than their worse act.”
- Bryan Stevenson