California Criminal Court Process


The court system can seem like a maze of bureaucracy — once you’re in, you may have no idea how to find your way around. Laws and court rules can be very complex and confusing for a person who is unfamiliar with their technicalities. This page lays out some of the steps in the court process when you’ve been charged with a crime in California.

However, it’s likely that you have more questions. A San Diego criminal defense lawyer can help demystify the criminal court process and answer questions you have about your specific case. A good attorney can explain what to expect in court, and also discuss your options for a strong defense to your charge.


Unless police witnessed you committing an alleged crime, chances are that law enforcement officers conducted an investigation before arresting you. An investigation involves collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses to piece together the events surrounding a possible crime. The goal is to determine whether a crime was committed and who committed it. At the end of the process, the police may arrest someone — or many people.

As part of a criminal investigation, police may want to question you or conduct a search of you or your property. Even at this early stage before any arrest is made, you can benefit from the presence of a San Diego criminal attorney. An attorney can help ensure that your rights are protected during any police interrogation or during a search.

An attorney can advise you about how to conduct yourself, what questions to answer, and what your rights are during the investigation. An attorney may even be able to work with police or prosecutors to prevent your arrest or to prevent criminal charges from being filed.

Arrest and Charges

If police find evidence that they believe points to your guilt during an investigation, then you may be arrested. Police may search you when you’re arrested. This is called a search incident to an arrest, and is one of the times when police are not required to obtain a search warrant.

In order to arrest you, police need probable cause, or in other words they need sufficient reason to believe that you committed a crime. Sometimes you may be arrested on the spot when something happens, such as police witnessing what looks like an illegal drug purchase and arresting the participants. If your arrest results from an investigation, police may show up at your home, your business, or some other place with an arrest warrant.

When you’re arrested, it’s then up to a prosecutor to decide whether to file charges against you.

  • If no charges are filed, you’ll be released
  • If the prosecutor believes there is enough evidence to charge you, you may be released on bail or held in custody for an arraignment


An arraignment is your first appearance in court after you are arrested and charges are filed. At an arraignment, the court will:

  • Read the charges against you
  • Explain your rights
  • Explain that a lawyer will be appointed for you if you can’t afford one

At the arraignment, you’ll also have the opportunity to enter a plea to the charge. However, if you don’t yet have a criminal defense lawyer, you can request a continuance. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea not to enter your plea until you have a chance to talk to a lawyer and understand the consequences of the different plea options.

When you enter a plea, it will be either:

  • Not Guilty — You’re telling the court that you didn’t commit the crime
  • Guilty — You admit that you committed the crime
  • No Contest — You don’t admit to the crime, but acknowledge that enough evidence exists to convict you

In effect, a plea of “no contest” is the same as pleading guilty. When you plead no contest, the court then will find you guilty and proceed to your sentencing.

Your defense lawyer can explain the pros and cons of each type of plea and make a recommendation for which plea you should enter based on the specific circumstances of your charge.


Bail may be addressed at your arraignment, or it may addressed at a separate bail hearing. Depending on the circumstances of your charge, a judge may:

  • Release you without bail, otherwise known as on your “own recognizance”
  • Set bail
  • Deny bail

If a judge sets a bail amount, you remain in jail until you pay the bail. The amount of bail is based on numerous factors, including the seriousness of your charge, your past history, and whether the judge believes you are likely to flee.

If bail is denied, you stay in custody while your case proceeds through court.

Pretrial Process

The pretrial process is when a lot of the work happens in a criminal case. Your defense attorney and the prosecutor will trade evidence in a process known as discovery. Each side will build their respective cases. The pretrial process is also the time when each side files motions to address certain kinds of legal issues that can affect how the case proceeds to trial — or whether it proceeds to trial at all.

One of the most important issues addressed during the pretrial process is the admissibility of evidence. If prosecutors plan to use evidence obtained through a search of you or your property, or through wiretapping or surveillance, your defense lawyer may challenge whether the search or surveillance was conducted legally.

If your rights were violated in any way by a search or by police surveillance, then a judge may rule that prosecutors aren’t allowed to use evidence obtained from the illegal search or surveillance. In turn, that can weaken the prosecution’s case to the point that your charge is dismissed or reduced. Many criminal cases are resolved during the pretrial phase without having to go to trial.


A trial is when each side presents arguments, evidence, and testimony to a judge or jury. You have the right to a trial by jury for any kind of criminal offense that is not an infraction. However, you also have the right to waive a trial by jury and to choose to have a judge decide your innocence or guilty, a process also known as a court trial. A skilled San Diego criminal attorney can explain the difference between a jury trial and a court trial and which might be better for you.

During a trial, a prosecutor must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor fails to do that, then a jury or judge should return a not guilty verdict. If you’re found not guilty, you go free. If you’re found guilty, your charge moves to the sentencing phase.


Sentencing often happens separately from your verdict. A jury returns a guilty verdict, and a judge then sets a date for a sentencing hearing. At a sentencing hearing, the judge hears recommendations from the prosecutor and from your defense lawyer about the appropriate sentence based on the circumstances of your charge. Evidence and testimony may be presented to support each side’s recommendations. Then a judge makes a decision about your sentence.


When you are found guilty of a crime, you have a right to appeal that verdict. However, there have to be grounds for the appeal. Grounds for an appeal typically involve flaws in the court process, such as:

  • There wasn’t enough evidence to support the verdict
  • Mistakes of law were made during the process that affected the outcome

A mistake of law might involve a situation like a judge allowing evidence to be used when it was obtained through an illegal search. If a mistake was made, an appellate court can override that verdict or send your case back for a fresh trial. However, it’s important to understand that an appellate court cannot re-decide the facts of your case.

An appeal is definitely a process in which you would want the help of an experienced San Diego criminal attorney. Issues in appeals can revolve around minute and technical details of the law that an attorney can best interpret and argue on your behalf. Call Jessica McElfresh at (858) 756-7107 for a free initial consultation.