Felony case process
Being arrested for a crime is not the same as being charged with a crime. It only means that a person is under investigation for a crime. Ultimately, the prosecutor decides whether someone will be charged and what those charges are.
What follows is the path of a felony case, starting with arrest and going through trial. If your case begins with a summons rather than an arrest, skip to Step 5.
- A case generally begins with an arrest.
- Police can arrest you if they believe you have committed a crime.
- Police can arrest you if there is an outstanding warrant for your arrest based on allegations that you committed a crime.
A bookingIf arrested, you may be booked into jail and held pending your first hearing before a judge. The police agency will submit a “certificate of probable cause,” or “PC cert,” identifying what offenses they are alleging and the evidence they are relying upon.
The first appearance hearing
The first appearance hearing is where the prosecutor asks a judge to find probable cause to believe that you committed a criminal offense. This finding is generally based on the allegations contained in the probable cause certification. An attorney from the Department of Public Defense (DPD) staffs the “first appearance calendar.” That attorney will represent you and may argue against a finding of probable cause. Generally, the first appearance hearing is held the next business day after a person’s arrest (there is a calendar on Saturday but not Sunday).
If the judge finds there is no probable cause, you must be unconditionally released.
If the judge finds there is probable cause, prosecutors may ask that you be held on bail. Or you may be subject to other conditions of release for up to 3 business days while prosecutors determine whether they will file charges. Based on these arguments, the judge will decide if you can be released on your promise to appear when asked to. Or the judge will set bail and/or other release conditions.
The judge can order you held on bail for 3 reasons:
- Ensure your appearance in court.
- Concern that you might commit a violent crime.
- Concern that you might interfere with the administration of justice.
The judge will also set a date for a second appearance within 3 business days of the arrest.
The second appearance hearing
At the end of the 3 business days, the prosecutor must decide whether they’re filing charges and what those charges are. The prosecutor can change those charges in the future. If they don’t file charges, the court lifts all conditions, and you’re released. If they do file charges, the court schedules an arraignment, which must be held within 14 days of the filing date.
At that point, if you remain in custody, DPD will assign an attorney to you. You don’t need to do anything to have an attorney assigned.
An arraignment is when you come before a judge and are formally charged with a crime or crimes. You then enter a plea. That plea is usually “not guilty.” Your defense attorney might again argue for your release, either without bail or with a lower amount of bail or other release conditions. Or the attorney might wait before making that argument, since you generally only get to argue one time for release after being charged.
If possible, family, employers, mentors, and friends should attend the arraignment. It shows the court that you have stability and support.
Pre-trial or omnibus hearingsThere can be several pre-trial hearings, also called omnibus hearings. At a pre-trial/omnibus hearing, the prosecutor and your attorney will tell the judge whether they’re ready for trial and discuss other issues. Sometimes a trial date will be set. Sometimes, that date will be “continued.” There can be many omnibus hearings before a trial begins depending on the complexity of the case and many other factors.
Plea agreementsMany cases end with what’s called a “plea agreement.” Generally, the prosecutor will offer some incentive (reduction in charge, particular sentence recommendation) in exchange for your pleading guilty to one or more charges. If you plead guilty, there will be no trial; instead, a plea date is set for entry of the guilty plea and sentencing.
There are 3 key parts of a trial, should your case go to trial.
- Pre-trial motions. These motions are very important. They can determine what evidence will be part of the trial, the scope of the testimony, and more. A lot can happen in pre-trial motions. Sometimes, pre-trial motions determine whether the case will move forward to trial.
- Jury selection. Lawyers and the judge often work through a large pool of potential jurors to identify those with biases that would prevent them from serving fairly on the case.
- The trial itself. A trial can last a long time, often several weeks.
If you have family, friends, or community support, their attendance at the trial can help show the judge how you are supported in the community.
If you’re found guilty, the judge will issue a sentence. Before doing so, the court will hold a sentencing hearing. Your attorney will likely submit a pre-sentence report to try to get the least harsh sentence possible. The sentencing hearing is another time when family and community support matters.