In California, felonies carry a wide range of maximum penalties – up to and including life in prison and even death. Fortunately, due to changes in the law, many felonies are ineligible for sentencing in state prison. Instead, these sentences must be served in the county jail. More so than misdemeanors, many felony convictions carry far-reaching adverse consequences affecting your ability to own/possess firearms, vote, retain legal immigration status, keep professional licenses, and more.
Certain felonies seem relatively innocuous, yet cause substantial difficulties in maintaining a truly “livable” life. Rarely, if ever, is it wise to forego the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney when dealing with felony charges. You must know all available options before making such an important decision.
As of November 2014, many offenses that were formerly designated felonies, are now misdemeanors. Formally known as Proposition 47, this sea change in California law mostly applies to drug possession and theft-related charges. There are some exceptions to the new legislation, but the vast majority of clients will benefit from these changes. If you have an eligible felony conviction from before November 2014, we can file a petition to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor.
Brief Overview of a Felony Case:
First, law enforcement will conduct an investigation. This can be a simple traffic stop or a lengthy investigation lasting for several months. The results of that investigation become the official “Police Report”. The report is submitted to the local prosecutor’s office for review; in most California jurisdictions, the prosecutor is the District Attorney of that particular county. At this point, a case may be charged or rejected, depending on the assessment by the District Attorney.
If more information is needed by the reviewing District Attorney, the case is referred back to the law enforcement agency for additional investigation. The decision to file or reject a case is done on a case by case basis, considering the state of the evidence. Many felonies have a three year statute of limitations, others have time limits well beyond.
Once a case is filed, the first court appearance is called the arraignment. The arraignment serves several important purposes:
- To formally advise you of the charges filed by the District Attorney.
- You’re advised of your right to be represented by an attorney for the duration of your case.
- To enter a plea. Common pleas at arraignment are not guilty, guilty, or no contest.
- The determination of custody status. For some cases, the judge may leave you out of custody on your own recognizance. Other cases may require posting bail (money and/or property) to ensure your appearance at the next court date. My goal, whenever possible, is to keep you out of custody from the beginning.
Future court dates are set at the arraignment, which may include an expedited settlement conference and/or a preliminary hearing. The next court date might be as soon as a few weeks, or as far out as a few months, depending on the legal issues involved and overall case complexity and strategy. The time in-between court appearances is utilized to gather all relevant evidence and assess the strengths and weaknesses in the case. If there are exculpatory witnesses or other evidence necessary for the defense of the case, those witnesses are interviewed and those items are gathered. Defense investigation is very crucial to every case.
At any point during a felony case, preparing legal motions to challenge the seizure or use of evidence might be appropriate. Some issues must be litigated during trial, while others may be addressed beforehand. Many cases are won or lost at this critical stage, and it can shape the issues and direction of potential defenses at trial.
One of the next court appearances and first opportunities to evaluate the strength of the evidence against you is a preliminary hearing. This hearing determines whether there is probable cause to send the case up to Superior Court and set a trial date. Keep in mind, the District Attorney may only provide the minimum amount of evidence to meet the probable cause standard. To show probable cause, there must be evidence of a crime and evidence that you are guilty of that crime.
It is uncommon, due to strategic reasons, for the Defense to put on any evidence at this early stage. Even if the judge finds sufficient probable cause, you can still contest your case at trial. Often times, preliminary hearing is a useful tool to set up a successful defense at trial.
Superior Court Arraignment
The next step after preliminary hearing is the Superior Court Arraignment. This is a similar process as the initial arraignment, and the four objectives are the same: advisement of rights, right to counsel, entry of pleas, and determination of custodial status. Keep in mind, the charges filed in Superior Court may be different than the ones in Municipal Court (first appearance), thus arguments as to custody status can change.
From this point, a pre-trial conference is set to discuss the merits of case and attempt settlement. This is the time when I will discuss your case with the Judge and the District Attorney. The goal is to negotiate a favorable plea bargain on your case, whether or not the case ultimately goes to trial. By law, the results of this conference must be conveyed to the client (regardless of whether or not the offer is favorable). If the offer is acceptable, the case may proceed towards sentencing. If not, it gives an idea as to where the case stands and can be useful in determining the pros and cons of proceeding to trial.
Court or Jury Trial
If settlement is not reached, the case heads towards a court or jury trial. A court trial is decided by a judge who hears the evidence and decides whether or not the District Attorney has proved your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury trial is the process by which twelve members of the public are selected to hear the evidence and decide whether or not the District Attorney has proved your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If you are found not guilty (acquitted) at trial, the case terminates. If you are convicted, you proceed to sentencing.
Sentencing is the time when individual factors and circumstances are considered by the judge before pronouncing judgment. Judges usually have a great deal of discretion at sentencing, so this is the opportunity to express mitigating factors which can result in an appropriate and fair minimal sentence. Issues concerning probation, jail time, restitution, and fines are all addressed at sentencing.
As you can see, felony cases are the most complicated and have very serious lifelong consequences. You need a knowledgeable, experienced, and aggressive criminal defense attorney to fight any felony case.