UNDERSTANDING THE CRIMINAL PROCESS IN CALIFORNIA
For most suspects involved in a criminal investigation, the process is frightening, uncertain and complex. To help you understand what to expect, I have provided the following bird’s-eye view of the criminal legal process.
Before you read, two things must be kept in mind. First, this is only an overview; it is not legal advice for your case. Second, each case is a little different and certain parts of the following timeline might not apply to every situation. The intricacies of any given case warrant the special assistance of a qualified attorney.
If you are facing a criminal investigation or charge, please call 310-773-3311 or email me at my Santa Monica office for legal guidance. I am attorney Chris W. Blaylock, and I can aggressively defend you against the charges you are facing. Your consultation is free.
Criminal investigations usually, though not always, start with someone’s suspicion that a law has been broken. Typically a police officer or a district attorney initiates an investigation. Sometimes the officer or DA believes he or she has witnessed or has evidence of a crime. In other situations, a citizen, organization or government agency requests law enforcement assistance with a matter of suspicion.
Whatever the case, this initial suspicion triggers the investigative phase of the criminal process. Depending on the circumstances, a suspect may be taken into custody in conjunction with the start of an investigation; often, however, the perpetrator of a crime is unknown and a large part of the investigation will involve efforts to identify and locate a suspect.
The specifics will depend on the nature of the case, whether a suspect is in custody, free on bail or not yet apprehended, and the various initiatives employed by the authorities; but in almost every situation, suspects retain a number of critical individual rights. Most of these rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and exist at all times during the criminal process. These rights include protections against unreasonable searches or seizures and restrictions on suspect treatment, along with many others. If you are a suspect in a criminal case, please contact me immediately to ensure that your rights are not jeopardized.
Making An Arrest
Many criminal investigations either begin with or lead to an arrest. It is critical to remember that being arrested does not prove guilt. An arrest triggers a number of constitutional rights such as the right to an attorney, the right to a speedy and fair trial, and the right to a jury.
Once arrested, a suspect must be charged within a limited period of time. If not ultimately charged, a suspect must be released from custody.
Even if a suspect is charged and initially held in custody, a judge may authorize release on bail. Bail is the posting of a bond that provides a financial incentive for a suspect to return to court at a later required date. Bail bonds cost money or require a deposit of some type and the bonds are forfeited if the suspect fails to appear at a later court date.
Criminal Defense Attorneys
Most people who are suspected of committing a crime will want to retain an attorney to assist with the preparation of a defense. The Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant the right to an attorney, even if the defendant cannot pay for one. It does not matter if a suspect is being held in custody or is free on bail; the right to an attorney exists in every situation.
Criminal prosecutions require evidence. Because the burden of proof falls on the prosecution during a criminal trial, it is typically law enforcement or the DA who gathers evidence in a case. However, some evidence may be prepared by the defense. This might include a selection of favorable witnesses, reports from experts or items of evidence under the defendant’s control. In addition, the prosecution is required to make available to the defense any evidence that might exonerate a suspect.
Pretrial Hearings And Motions
Before a trial gets underway, there are likely to be several pretrial court appearances. The purpose of these appearances is to determine preliminary questions such as which of certain pieces of evidence will be admissible at trial. The hearings help to set the stage for the later trial by working out some of the ground rules for the case. Sometimes the hearings simply amount to a request for more time from one side or the other. In any event, unless your attorney tells you otherwise, attending each hearing is very important.
Prosecutors may offer defendants a plea deal in exchange for an admission of guilt. Such deals usually involve an offer to lessen the charges against a defendant who pleads guilty or an offer to lessen or drop charges against a defendant who agrees to testify against other suspects or defendants. Be very careful with such deals. You should never agree to any plea deal without getting advice from a qualified attorney.
Before a trial gets underway, a jury must be selected. During jury selection, both sides have an opportunity to question potential jurors and to have an impact on the makeup of the jury that will hear the case. This is a critical aspect of the case because the defense must ensure that all 12 jurors are able to give a fair and unbiased judgment in the case.
During a criminal trial, both sides will have a chance to present their arguments. The prosecution will go first and present the evidence it believes proves the defendant’s guilt. The defense has a choice of presenting a case more favorable to the defendant or of simply asking the jury to find that the evidence does not meet the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” After each side is finished, it will be up to the jury to determine if the prosecution presented evidence that convinced each member of the jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest legal standard.
Guilty Or Not Guilty
If the jury unanimously agrees that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant is convicted of the crime in question. If the jury unanimously agrees that the prosecution has not met this high burden, then the defendant is not guilty. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, a mistrial is called and the prosecution has to determine if it wants to try the case again. Defendants who are found not guilty cannot ever again be tried for the same alleged crime.
If a defendant is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he or she has an opportunity to appeal that decision. An appeal involves asking a higher court to review the situation for fairness and legal integrity. The prosecution cannot appeal a not guilty verdict.
If a jury finds a defendant guilty, the next step is sentencing. Sometimes a sentence is combined with the regular trial; sometimes it is determined independently in a hearing before a judge or a new jury. Sentencing proceedings are similar to trials, but the only issue under consideration is punishment. In addition, the rules of procedure and evidence are slightly different than those in play during a regular trial.
After a defendant’s punishment has been determined, the defendant must usually serve out that sentence. Under some circumstances, however, sentences might be suspended or shortened at a later date. Sometimes this is a result of changes in the law or a reward for a defendant’s good behavior. Sometimes other considerations such as prison conditions come into play. In some situations, new evidence comes to light that demonstrates a defendant’s innocence or changes the nature of the crime, thus affecting the nature of the punishment. These situations can be complex and opportunities might not be repeated. The advice of a qualified attorney is critical to protecting someone’s rights after conviction.
Release And Rehabilitation
Once a sentence has been carried out or mitigated, the convicted person will be released. Depending on the nature of the crime and other related circumstances, he or she may have ongoing restrictions such as limitations on the right to vote or to participate in certain public duties. In addition, even if they do not face ongoing criminal sanctions, those convicted may have difficulty obtaining employment, finding safe housing or the like. If you are facing difficulties after release and you feel you are being treated unfairly or harassed, contact an attorney to discuss your options.
The Law Offices of C.W. Blaylock represents defendants in both Los Angeles and Santa Monica. I am a Chris W. Blaylock, a criminal defense lawyer who aggressively represents my clients. I have successfully negotiated favorable plea deals and won acquittals at trial. I can help you with your criminal case, so do not hesitate to contact me online or call 310-773-3311 to schedule your free consultation.