How Do Felony Cases Generally Work?
The Felony Case Process in Los Angeles County
Once you have been arrested or notified of a felony case by the police, the court process begins. While every felony case is unique, most cases in Los Angeles County follow the same general court process, which can be broken down into these six phases:
- Preliminary Hearing Setting & Early Disposition Program
- Preliminary Hearing
- Arraignment in Trial Court
- Pretrial Hearings & Pretrial Readiness Conference
Phase 1: Arraignment
The first phase of a felony case is called the arraignment (pronounced uh-rain-ment). If we can for a moment think of a felony case as a marathon, the arraignment is the very beginning the race, where everyone lines up at the Start line. The announcer says “go!” The case has now officially begun.
How is The Felony Complaint Filed Against Me?
Before the arraignment, the police have already taken their case to the local District Attorney (DA) for formal filing of charges against you. The police can recommend to the DA what charges the police think fit best for the alleged crime, but the DA makes the final call. In some cases, the DA will not file at all. Sometimes the DA will file a lower or different charge. Other times, the DA will file more serious charges. The charge or charges ultimately filed by the DA against you is called the “Felony Complaint.”
What Actually Happens at the Arraignment?
The arraignment is the very first court appearance in a felony case. At this time, the Felony Complaint has now been filed against you, and you are now referred to as the “Defendant.” You must be present in court because at least one of the charges against you is a felony charge. The prosecution side is often referred to as “the People,” which is short for the People of the State of California.
(Note this is different than misdemeanors cases, where most of the time your attorney can appear on your behalf)
If you are in being held in custody, the bailiff (sheriff deputy) will bring you into the courtroom from the holding area. If you are already out on bail, then you will likely be seated in the audience waiting for the court to call your case.
Once the judge calls your name, it is your turn. Several issues must be addressed at this time:
- You must be advised of your Constitutional rights;
- You must be advised of the criminal charges against you (in the Felony Complaint)
- You must be advised of your right to have your lawyer with you, or if you cannot afford one, to get a lawyer appointed to your case (usually a Public Defender);
- You are given an opportunity to enter a plea of either: not guilty, guilty, or no contest to the charges against you.
- The court will either: set bail on your case, release you on your promise to appear (referred to as “Own Recognizance” or “OR” leave), or in some cases the court can set no bail;
- You must be advised of your right to a speedy preliminary hearing (see below) within 10 court days (note: these are not calendar days of Mon-Sun, but instead business days)
- The court will calendar the date for your next court date
Your lawyer will receive the Discovery on your case, which is collectively the police reports, witness statements, and any other evidence that will likely be used against you in your case.
If your case is not resolved at the arraignment, then your case will move on to the next phase.
Phase 2: Preliminary Hearing Setting & Early Disposition Program
After your arraignment, the next court appearance is generally a preliminary hearing setting (commonly referred to as “prelim setting”), and also simultaneously an Early Disposition Program (“EDP”) court hearing.
During this court hearing, the main goal is to try and resolve the case without moving to the preliminary hearing itself. Your attorney, the Deputy District Attorney, and the judge will all discuss the possibility of settling the case. The DA will give an “offer” to settle the case, and in many cases the judge will also give its own offer as well.
If there is a successful settlement of the case, the agreement will be called a plea bargain.
If the case is not resolved at this phase, then the case will move forward to the next phase–the preliminary hearing.
Phase 3: Preliminary Hearing
In every felony case in California, you are entitled to a speedy preliminary hearing before a court within ten (10) court days of the arraignment.
Note: you can waive (aka give up) the right to a speedy preliminary hearing in your case. This is commonly referred to as “waiving time.” If you waive time, you will not lose your right to a preliminary hearing. Instead, the preliminary hearing will take place at some date beyond ten (10) court days (usually a couple of weeks or a month later).
There are a lot of factors at play regarding whether you should waive time. Some of these factors include, but are not limited to:
- Whether you will remain in custody (because you cannot afford to post bail, or the court set no bail);
- Your attorney needs time to best prepare for your case; and
- Your work or life obligations
At some point, the preliminary hearing will take place.
What is the Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing?
Because of the high stakes involved in a felony case, the primary purpose of a preliminary hearing is to weed out weak or unfounded charges against you.
Note however, that the standard required to be shown at a preliminary hearing is much lower than the very high standard required at trial.
The standard required to be shown at preliminary hearing is “probable cause.” This means that the DA must show that 1) there is a probable cause that a crime was committed, and 2) that there is probable cause that you were involved in the crime. Probable cause generally means a strong suspicion. This is a low standard, indeed.
In Los Angeles County, the majority of cases get “held to answer,” which basically means that the court finds enough evidence to allow the charges against you to continue. Being held to answer does not automatically mean that you will lose at trial. Far from.
What Happens at the Preliminary Hearing?
At the preliminary hearing, you and your attorney will be seated on the defense side of the courtroom, and the Deputy District Attorney (and likely a detective) will be seated on the prosecution side of the courtroom. A judge will preside over the hearing, but there will be no jury.
The DA gets the first opportunity to call its witnesses, as the DA has the burden of proving to the judge that probable cause exists. Each witness will testify under oath. Every case is unique, but most of the time the witnesses will be police officers and perhaps a few civilian eyewitnesses.
The DA will ask questions of each of its own witnesses in what is referred to as “direct examination.” After the direct examination of each witness is over, your lawyer has the opportunity to “cross examine” that witness. Likewise, if the defense decides to call its own witnesses and ask the witnesses questions on direct examination, the DA gets a chance to cross examine each defense witness as well. It goes both ways.
Once the DA has finished its case, it will “rest” and the defense has a chance to call its own witnesses.
Note: The preliminary hearing is a very important opportunity to assess how much evidence the DA has against you. It is also a tremendous time for both you and your lawyer to see and hear firsthand how the witnesses may testify against you, should the case continue to trial. For this reason, the defense rarely calls its own witnesses or presents a full-defense. For strategy, the defense may not want to tip off its best defense to the police and prosecution side. This is why in some cases, your lawyer may only cross examine DA witnesses, but not present witnesses for your side.
If you get held to answer at the preliminary hearing, the next phase is the arraignment on the Information.
Phase 4: Arraignment in Trial Court
Once you have been held to answer after the preliminary hearing, the next court hearing will be held in the trial court, which will handle the case for the remainder of the case. In this trial court, the DA files a new document called the “Information.”
The Information contains the list of charges that you will be tried for in trial. Most of the time, the charges listed in the Felony Complaint are the same charges listed in the Information. However, sometimes an additional charge can be added or a charge dismissed based on what happened at the preliminary hearing.
When you are arraigned on the Information in the trial court, most of the same processes from phase 1 repeat once again.
After this court hearing, the case proceeds to a few final hearings before trial.
Phase 5: Pretrial Hearings & Pretrial Readiness Conference
After the arraignment on the Information, there will be a few pretrial hearings and ultimately a pretrial readiness conference before trial. Your lawyer, the DA, and the judge will again discuss the prospects of settling the case. If there is no case settlement, then the case will end up going to trial.
If the case will proceed to trial, the pretrial hearings will be opportunities for your lawyer to challenge and try to prevent certain evidence from coming in at trial. There will also be an exchange of the identities of witnesses who will be called for trial.
Further, your lawyer and the DA will likely file “motions,” which are usually written requests for orders from the judge. Successful motions can make or break a case. For example, a successful motion to suppress evidence can severely weaken the prosecution's case, and provide an incentive for a favorable plea bargain.
At some point, a final pretrial readiness conference will be called, which is a last-ditch effort to resolve the case without trial. If there is no resolution, the case will proceed to trial.
Phase 6: Trial
The last phase in the felony court process is trial. Trial can be either a jury trial or a bench trial (judge only), but a jury trial is the choice for the vast majority of trials. For this reason, I will focus on jury trials.
Your case will have a panel of twelve (12) jurors, and two (2) alternate jurors. Only the twelve (12) jurors will decide the issue of your guilt; the alternates are there in case something happens to one of the twelve (12) jurors.
Unlike the low standard of the preliminary hearing, the standard required to prove your guilt at trial is the highest standard in all the land–proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high threshold to reach, and jury can only convict you if they all unanimously (all twelve jurors) find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The trial phase of the felony case process further breaks down into the following:
- Jury selection, called voir dire, where a large pool of jurors are questioned until the final twelve (12) jurors and two (2) alternates are selected;
- Opening statements, where both the prosecutor and defense can each introduce their side of the case to the jurors;
- Direct and cross examination of witnesses– the prosecutor gets to start first since it has the burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; both the prosecution and defense can ask questions of their own witnesses on direct examination, and ask questions of the opposing side's witnesses on cross examination;
- Closing argument, where both the prosecutor and defense get to argue why the jury should agree with their side of the case;
- If a verdict is reached, the jury will deliver its verdict; in some cases, there is a split or hung jury and a verdict cannot be reached;
- If a verdict is reached by the jury and you are found guilty, the judge will sentence you.
As you can see, a felony case is quite a lengthy and complex process. All cases are unique and will take on a form of their own. This article is intended to be for general education purposes, based on my own experiences representing clients throughout felony proceedings in Los Angeles County.