criminal court process generally takes between three and four months to
complete from the time the defendant is arrested to final sentencing.
A criminal case begins when a person is arrested. Our office files
formal charges after reviewing the police report, or a grand jury issues
A person who has been arrested and is being held in custody has a right
to an arraignment within 48 hours of being arrested. The defendant is
brought before the court to plead to the criminal charges in the
complaint. The defendant is told what crime he or she has been charged
with and is asked to plead "guilty" or "not guilty" or, in certain
situations, the defendant may plead "no contest" to the charges.
After the arraignment, if the defendant has plead not guilty to a felony
offense, a preliminary hearing is held. At this hearing the prosecutor
must produce evidence to show that it is more likely than not that a
crime has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime. If
the judge decides that the district attorney did show enough evidence,
the defendant is arraigned a second time where the defendant will be
formally charged again, rights will be explained, and a plea will be
Trial Setting and Motions
Next, a trial date is set. In some cases, the attorneys file motions to
the court. A motion is a request made to the judge by the prosecution or
the defense which asks for a certain order, ruling, or direction. The
judge selects a date by which all motions are to be filed with the
court. After all motions have been made and ruled on by the judge, the
trial date is set at the second arraignment.
The trial begins with selection of a jury. Twelve jurors are selected
from the jury pool along with alternate jurors. The number of alternates
selected depends on the type and length of the case. The alternate
jurors hear the entire case. If one of the selected jurors cannot
complete jury service, an alternate takes over.
Being a juror is an important task, and the Office of the District
Attorney thanks those who serve in this important constitutional role.
Learn more about what to expect when you serve on a jury by downloading
the California Court's brochure on jury service at
Next, attorneys give their opening statements. Opening statements are
summaries made to the jury which outline what the attorneys expect to
prove with the evidence they have.
Evidence and Witnesses
Evidence is then presented first by the prosecutor
and then by the attorney representing the defendant. Evidence can
consist of pictures, objects, documents, or sworn testimony by
witnesses. The evidence presented at trial must either prove or disprove
a question in the case. If it does not, the evidence is not relevant to
the case and the jury is not allowed to consider it when determining
whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
Either attorney can object to questions he or she feels are improper.
The judge either sustains the objection, which means the question cannot
be asked, or he overrules the objection and lets the attorney ask the
After both sides have presented their evidence, the attorneys give their
closing arguments. Each attorney analyzes and interprets the evidence he
or she has presented. The jury is then instructed by the judge about the
law that applies to the case. The jury then moves to the jury room to
reach a verdict.
Jury Deliberation and Reaching a Verdict
If the jury reaches a guilty verdict in a felony case, the judge will
order a probation report and schedule a sentencing hearing. A
misdemeanor can be sentenced immediately.
State and local laws determine the defendant's punishment. The maximum
sentence for an infraction is a fine; for a misdemeanor it is a fine
and/or up to one year in county jail; and for a felony it is time in a
state prison or, for some murders, death.