A felony is the more serious of the possible offenses. Felonies are punishable by a year or more in jail or prison and potentially life in prison or even the death penalty. There is a vast difference between low-level felonies and very serious violent felonies such as murder, forcible rape, and robbery. Yet, all felonies carry the consequence of categorizing the convicted party as a “felon.” There are many low-level felonies that can also be charged and punished as a misdemeanor; these are called “wobblers.” (see What you need to know about wobblers) Because a felony conviction is more serious than a misdemeanor conviction, the court procedure is different.
In a felony case the very first hearing is called the arraignment. At this hearing you will be informed of what the exact charges are against you. You will then have to enter a plea: guilty, no contest, or not guilty. The next issue at the first hearing will be bail.
In California, to be released from jail while criminal charges are pending a defendant has to post bail as security to the court that the defendant will show up for his/her future hearings. The amount of bail is based on the specific charges and also any priors the defendant may have that are alleged in the complaint. (The document filed with the court by the prosecutor that lists what the charges are) The more serious the crime is, the higher the amount of bail.
In some situations, you may be released on your own recognizance, which means that you will sign a promise to the court that you will return. Other options include “pre-trial release,” or some type of supervised release with terms and conditions, i.e. electronic monitor, AA meetings, counseling, etc. Hiring a skilled attorney before the first hearing and before posting bail is the best way to protect your interests ad your money. You may have options other than posting bail.
At the first hearing, your attorney will get the initial police reports in your case and will set the case for another hearing called a pre-preliminary hearing. There may be numerous hearings called pre-preliminary hearings. Depending on the facts of your case and the evidence against you, your attorney will need to investigate and prepare for the preliminary hearing.
When you are accused of committing a felony, the prosecutor has to prove to the judge that it is more likely than not that a crime was committed and that you may have committed it. To meet this burden, the prosecutor has to present evidence to the judge; this may be accomplished through the law enforcement officer that investigated the case. The prosecutor will ask numerous questions to establish the facts of their case. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the officer and try to prove that the evidence does not show that you committed the crime, or even that a crime occurred. The defendant is limited to putting on evidence or asking questions related to an affirmative defense, impeaching witnesses, or demonstrating that the alleged crime did not occur.
At the end of the preliminary hearing, the judge will determine whether or not the prosecution has proven that it is 51% likely that you committed the alleged crime. If the judge finds the prosecution has done this, you will be “held to answer.”
After the hearing, the prosecutor will have to file an “information,” listing the charges against you.
After the preliminary hearing, you and your attorney will have a better idea of what the prosecution’s case is against you. If you are held to answer there will be multiple hearings after the preliminary hearing where your attorney will fight on your behalf in response to any issues in your case. This may involve “motion work.”
Often times there are issues that can be fought to protect your constitutional rights. These issues will require “motion work.” Motions are legal documents that concisely present the issue to the judge, reference the law and other cases in California to support the argument, and propose a ruling the judge should make. After an attorney files a motion on your behalf and gives a copy to the prosecutor/District Attorney, the prosecutor can file an “opposition,” explaining why they think you are wrong and the judge should rule differently. There will be a hearing to argue the issues in front of the judge, which may involve witnesses being called to the stand to testify in support or against the motion.
At Proper Defense, attorney Sally Vecchiarelli prides herself in writing motions and effectively arguing on behalf of her clients. Sally Vecchiarelli is always reading new cases to stay on top of the law and relishes the opportunity to fight issues through motion work.
If your case is not resolved through negotiations with the prosecutor, you will end up going to trial. You have the right to have a jury trial or you can opt for a bench trial. A bench trial is when the judge is the one who hears the case and the evidence and makes a determination, without a jury.
A jury trial involves twelve people from the local community who watch the witnesses testify, see the evidence presented and then determine who they believe. Based on all of the evidence presented at the trial, they will determine whether or not the prosecution has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt (99.8% certainty) that you are guilty of the charges against you.
If a jury finds you guilty, or if you enter a plea to a felony charge, you will then be sentenced by the judge. After you are sentenced, you have a right to appeal the case. (see What is an appeal?) At Proper Defense, we do appellate work for clients that were represented by a different attorney during the trial or pre-trial stages of their case.
Better yet, hire Proper Defense to represent you before something goes wrong, as soon as you believe you may be suspected of committing a crime.