While all states follow similar procedures when someone is accused of a crime, each state handles some things differently. Here's a look at what happens in California.
People can be arrested if there is probable cause to believe they committed a crime. Usually police gather evidence and get an arrest warrant. An officer who sees a crime committed doesn't need a warrant. Officers must immediately tell people they arrest that they can refuse to talk to investigators and can have an attorney. Both rights, known as Miranda rights, are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and cases can be thrown out if suspects aren't advised of these rights.
Once arrested, the accused is booked. Jail officials ask for personal information, and suspects are photographed and fingerprinted. Officials check to see if there's any criminal history. All money, jewelry and other personal items are taken for safekeeping.
Within 24 hours of arrest, a suspect makes an initial appearance in court. A judge appoints an attorney if the accused doesn't have one, and then sets bail. The amount can range from small to large amounts. Each county has a set schedule of bail amounts that vary by offense.
Within two court days of arrest, the suspect will appear again for an arraignment if he's being held without bail. If he's been released from jail, the arraignment could be months or weeks after the arrest. There will be a chance to plead guilty, not guilty or no contest, and bail will be reviewed.
Next, the prosecutor presents evidence during a preliminary hearing. It's usually held about 10 days after the arraignment. If the judge finds probable cause to believe the defendant committed a crime, the accused will be "bound over" for trial and arraigned again in Superior Court. Bail also will be reviewed.
The majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements. The defendant will plead guilty or no contest to a lesser crime or in exchange for the prosecutor's promise that he'll recommend a lighter sentence. Defendants also can plead directly before the judge, who doesn't have authority to reduce the charges but can lighten the sentence.
Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury
It's rare for a grand jury in California to hear a criminal case. Usually, grand juries in the Golden State investigate government agencies and officials, though prosecutors can elect to present a criminal matter.
Going to Trial
In California, people are entitled to a trial before a jury of common citizens. Trials also can be held before judges, and that often happens with misdemeanors.
At trial, both the prosecution and defense present evidence, and then the jury decides. The verdict must be unanimous. If the jury can't agree, the case can be tried again before new jurors.
In misdemeanors, the judge usually sentences the defendant that day. While that sometimes happens with felonies as well, usually sentencing is set for a later date to allow probation departments to conduct an investigation.
Consult a Lawyer
This article is intended as a general overview. Contact a California criminal attorney as quickly as possible if you're suspected of a crime. A defense attorney will explain your legal options and help you make the best decisions.