Guide to the Criminal Justice System
The Court System
Three types of courts handle criminal matters: municipal court handles the less serious cases (misdemeanors); superior court handles the more serious cases (felonies); and juvenile court typically hears proceedings when the accused is under the age of 18.
A misdemeanor is defined by the Superior Court of California County of Riverside as “a criminal action in which the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor and it may include an infraction charge. It does not include any felony violations. The maximum punishment for misdemeanor violations is not more than one year, a fine not exceeding $1,000, or both.”
A felony is defined by the Superior Court of California County of Riverside as “criminal action in which the defendant is charged with violation of a felony. Misdemeanor or infraction violations may be included. The maximum punishment for a felony may be imprisonment in state prison or county jail, a fine, or both. In some cases, the death penalty may be imposed.”
An arraignment is when charges are formally presented to the criminal defendant (person charged with crime) in court. At the arraignment, the defendant acknowledges the complaint by pleading guilty or not guilty.
Progress Hearings (Trial Readiness Conference/ Felony Settlement Conference)
There are two types of progress hearings in court. If the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor, a Trial Readiness Conference (TRC) will be scheduled after the defendant’s arraignment because there are no preliminary hearings for misdemeanors. A TRC is a hearing where the attorneys appear in court, exchange discovery (information about the case), and may try to negotiate a disposition of the case. If the attorneys cannot agree to a guilty plea they set a trial date. A TRC could take place several times prior to trial.
In felony cases, your first appearance and testimony may be at the preliminary hearing. This is not a trial -- but it is a hearing at which the judge determines if there is sufficient evidence to require the defendant to stand trial in superior court. Normally just enough evidence is presented to "hold the defendant to answer." No jurors will be present, since the judge alone decides if there will be a trial.
If the defendant is "held to answer," at a Preliminary Hearing, a new date will be set for an Information Arraignment and the defendant will be arraigned again in Superior Court. You do not have to appear at the arraignment.
In misdemeanor cases, there is no Preliminary Hearing, so your first court appearance will be for the actual trial. Your testimony will be required only once. (In many cases a trial is not conducted because the defendant pleads guilty).
California law requires that a defendant charged with a felony be brought to trial within 60 days of the filing of the Information or the Indictment in Superior Court, unless that right is waived by the accused. Therefore, in some cases, this time could extend to several months.
Witnesses must testify at the trial even if they were thoroughly questioned at the Preliminary Hearing. In some cases, a trial will not be held because the defendant pleads guilty. When this happens, you will be notified that your testimony will not be required, and you will be released from your obligation under the subpoena to come to court.
Victim Impact Statement
At the sentencing, you have the right to appear and make a statement about the effects of the crime on you and your family as well as about the punishment you feel appropriate for the defendant. This can be done in a written statement, an oral statement, or a video recording presented to the judge.
Verdict and Sentencing
In a jury trial, the jury will find the defendant either guilty or not guilty of the crime(s). If the accused is found guilty, a date will be set for sentencing, usually 28 days after the verdict.
If the Case is Postponed
Sometimes a case will be postponed or "continued." If a continuance is ordered before you appear in court, we will make every effort to let you know that you need not appear on the date listed on the subpoena.
If a continuance is sought on the date you are scheduled to appear, we may not be able to let you know in time. Even if a continuance does occur, your original subpoena is still in effect and you will be contacted with the new date and time for your appearance. We encourage you to call Victim and Witness Services and confirm the time you should be in court before you go to the courthouse.
When you appear as a witness, you will be called to the witness stand by a Deputy District Attorney to testify about what you saw, heard, or did which may be relevant to the charges against the defendant. After the Deputy District Attorney has asked questions, the defense attorney has the right to test your memory of the facts, or to "cross-examine" you. You likely will be excluded from the courtroom when other witnesses are testifying. This is to ensure that the testimony or memory of one witness does not influence the testimony of another.
The Defense Attorney
The defense attorney may ask to speak with you to find out the nature of your testimony. There are no laws or rules prohibiting you from telling the defendant's attorney or a representative of the defense what your testimony will be. However, you are not required to do so. This is your decision. But feel free to discuss any of this with the Deputy District Attorney assigned to the case. If you choose to speak to the defense, you may wish to have another person present or tape record the interview to avoid later misquotations or misunderstandings.