We continue the series on what to expect following a felony arrest in California. What follows is an explanation of pre-trial proceedings.
Phase 4: Pre-trial Proceedings
Many felony arrests are resolved at the pre-trial phase of criminal prosecution. Although the accused person is required to attend all court conferences unless excused by the Superior Court Judge, a criminal defense attorney has many tools available to resolve the case at this stage. Common tools are court appearances (conferences and hearings), waivers, motions (requesting court to resolve a dispute about the evidence or charges between the defense and prosecution), discovery issues, and plea bargains or negotiations.
Court Appearances: Preliminary Hearing, Readiness Conference, or Felony Disposition Conference
Following the arraignment, the next most important appearance is the preliminary hearing, known as a “prelim” or “probable cause hearing.” During the preliminary hearing, two issues are before the court: Is there probable cause to believe that a crime was committed; and if so, is there probable cause to believe that the defendant is the person who committed the crime. While rare, the Superior Court Judge may dismiss the charges against the accused person at this point and no further action will be required. More commonly, however, if both questions are answered in the affirmative, the Superior Court Judge will rule that the accused person must “answer for the charges.” This means that the criminal case is sent to the trial court for further pretrial proceedings, like the readiness conference or felony disposition conference.
At the readiness conference the prosecution makes an offer to the accused person to resolve the case before any other activity in the case happens. In exchange for pleading guilty, the prosecution usually offers a reduction in charges or lower sentencing recommendations. Usually negotiated in the judge’s chambers, if resolvable, the criminal defendant accepts the plea and pleads guilty to the charges or reduced charges. If not resolved, the criminal matter continues on the pre-trial track and further proceedings like waivers and motion practice occur.
Waiver of Speedy Trial Right
If you choose to fight the charges, California Penal Code states that the prosecution must bring the case to trial within 60 days of your arrest. At the readiness conference, if the offer is not accepted, the criminal defendant often waives the right to a speedy trial because it is advantageous to his or her defense. The result is that a trial takes a long time to schedule and ultimately resolve. When you waive your right to a speedy trial, the timing of the case is no longer important.
Pre-trial motions are a set of requests made to the trial judge, by either side, to help reduce the issues for trial. The motions include Motion to Suppress Evidence, Motion to Dismiss Information, Motion for Speedy Trial, Motion to Sever Counts or Charges, and Motion to Compel Discovery. Each of these motions have a purpose and must be made at certain times in the process or the ability to make the motion is waived because the motions are time-limited.
From a defense perspective, there are three powerful motions that can be made during the pretrial phase of the case – the motion to set aside information, the pitchless motion, and the motion to suppress. In a motion to set aside the information, the defense askes the court to dismiss one or more of the criminal charges that have been lodged. A pitchless motion asks the court for permission to review the arresting or investigating police officer’s personnel file. Defense attorneys are looking for prior complaints, excessive force, biases, or other police misconduct to taint the arresting or investigating police officer’s credibility. Lastly, a motion to suppress evidence asks the court to exclude from consideration all illegally obtained evidence. If these motions are successful, they are instrumental in resetting plea negotiations and may lead to the dismissal of all charges because of lack of evidence or credibility concerns
Discovery in a criminal proceeding is a phase in which the defense and prosecution exchange evidence regarding the criminal case. Neither party may hide or withhold information from the other party and then attempt to present it later at trial. There is an exception for newly discovered evidence. There are strict rules and time-limits for the exchange and presentment of evidence in criminal proceedings. Continue reading