Review of Court Appearances During a Criminal Case
While most readers will be familiar from television and movies with a jury trial in a criminal case, the reality is that the vast majority of appearances which a defendant and their attorney make before the court in the course of a California criminal case are not jury trial dates.
This article from our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys discuss the process in both California state and federal court from the first appearance up to, but not including, a jury trial, if any, and the sentencing hearing.
Readers can review our other related articles on these topics here:
- preliminary hearings,
- jury trials, or
- sentencing hearings.
In federal court, a defendant is often brought before a magistrate judge for a pre-arraignment detention/bond hearing.
This addresses only the issues of the defendant's retention or not in custody by the U.S. Marshalls and what, if any, conditions of release should be imposed prior to arraignment before a United States District Judge.
In both federal and state courts, however, the arraignment hearing is the first opportunity for the defendant to enter either a guilty or a not guilty plea to the charges which have been brought by the government.
One of the main reasons of an arraignment is for the defendant to enter their initial plea to the charges against them.
Entering a Plea in Court
At arraignment, almost all defendants enter initial pleas of not guilty.
Except in the relatively small number of cases where a plea agreement has been worked out ahead of time, or on the spot at the arraignment date, there is no practical advantage to entering a guilty plea initially.
A not guilty plea can always be changed later on once a plea deal is worked out.
Entering a not guilty plea at arraignment is normally prerequisite to receiving additional discovery beyond the initial police reports provided by the prosecution as many District Attorney's offices will not process discovery requests until after arraignment.
There are, however, some charges and some prosecutors which call for arraignment-only offers which are so favorable that the defendant will want to take advantage of the offer without the opportunity to receive additional discovery or litigate the case through motion practice.
Even in these cases, the typical procedure is to continue the arraignment, i.e. set a new arraignment date a few weeks in the future, to give the defendant time to consider the offer.
It is in no one's interest to pressure a defendant into a speedy guilty plea at the first court date only to have him or her come back to court shortly thereafter seeking to withdraw his or her plea.
Arraignment is often the first time which bail is addressed by the criminal court judge. Here, the prosecutor or defense lawyer can request a change in the defendant's bail status.
Whether it be an increase or decrease in cash bail or a request to release the defendant on their own recognizance.
At the arraignment, the prosecution can request that bail or conditions of own recognizance release be set, even if the defendant already posted bond.
The prosecutor could also decide to file additional charges and might later request a higher bail already posted by the defendant.
In some cases, the prosecutor could request a hold pursuant to California Penal Code Section 1275.1, commonly called a “1275 hold.”
Under this statute, if probable cause exists showing he bail money posted was obtained from a defendant's criminal conduct, they can't use those funds to post a bail to get released from custody.
This means any money used to post bail must first be evaluated at a hearing to determine whether the funds from legitimate legal sources.
Post Arraignment Court Dates
Once arraignment is accomplished, a series of setting dates usually follow. In federal court, these might be called pretrial status conferences and occur relatively infrequently.
Some judges will not bring the parties into court physically unless there is a dispute for the court to address.
In California state court, however, a number of in-person status dates are typical.
In felony cases, these dates precede the preliminary hearing. The names vary from county to county and courthouse to courthouse, but these dates are often called:
- preliminary hearing settings,
- early disposition dates,
- felony settlement conferences, or
- pretrial dates (despite being pre-preliminary hearing).
In misdemeanor cases, as there is no preliminary hearing upcoming, these dates are most often called simply pretrial conferences or pretrial hearings.
Many issues can be addressed at these setting dates. Courts will hear certain types of motions and, if necessary, conduct an evidentiary hearing.
Courts will hear arguments about the conditions of the defendant's release from custody which arise during the pendency of the case, such as:
- requests to travel outside the jurisdiction, or
- requests by the prosecution for imposition of more restrictive conditions such as electronic monitoring based on some alleged violation of release conditions.
One of the critical issues which is addressed between the parties, usually off the record, at these setting dates is discovery.
The government has an ongoing duty, both constitutional and statutory in the case of California state courts, to turn over important evidence in the government's possession such as:
- recorded witness statements,
- police reports,
- physical evidence such as DNA analysis, etc.
The reality of the system, however, is that this evidence is rarely if ever ready to be turned over all at once at the arraignment date.
The discovery process may take multiple court dates to be complete, with continuances being requested by one or both parties on the basis that there is outstanding discovery.
The other critical function of setting dates is to give the parties an opportunity to discuss settlement of the case.
Particularly in California state courts where the number of cases is voluminous compared to the number of prosecutors employed by the District Attorney's office.
There is often a limited opportunity to discuss the case in detail and outline the terms of a possible settlement except when the setting date in court necessitates communication between the parties.
Many settlements are worked out face to face in court for this reason.
The criminal case process can seem opaque especially for a first-time defendant or their family members.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime and needs guidance on the criminal court process, contact our experienced team of criminal defense lawyers for an initial consultation.
Eisner Gorin LLP has two office locations in Los Angeles County and you can contact our law firm for an initial consultation at (310) 328-3776.