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The Judge’s Role in a California Criminal Case

The Judge’s Role in a California Criminal Case
The role of a judge in a criminal case is to interpret the law, review evidence, and referee hearings and trials in the courtroom.

A judge in a California criminal case serves multiple roles which help facilitate the proceedings in the pretrial stage and is, of course, called upon to make legal rulings on motions, evidentiary objections at trial, and requests for various types of relief which may be brought by the parties.

This article will focus on the various functions played by a trial court judge in a criminal case. Other judicial roles include administrative agency hearings, appellate procedure, and all forms of civil law proceedings.

Please refer to other articles on some of these aspects of the judicial role. Obviously, the role of the judge is a crucial part of the criminal case process.

The judge in a criminal case has many duties, such as interpreting the laws, review evidence, and referee how hearings and trials proceed in the criminal courtroom. Most importantly, however, they are supposed to be an impartial decision-maker pursuing justice.

In other words, a judge's role is to remain neutral party who presides as an impartial mediator between the prosecutor and the defendant's criminal defense lawyer.

One of their first role's is to be a manager of criminal cases, listen to motions, and while they have help from court clerks, they are responsible for setting the court schedule. They must also ensure everyone follows proper courtroom procedure. Code of Civil Procedure 170.6 CCP allows the disqualification of a judge for prejudice. 

In order to give readers a better understanding of the role of a judge, our California criminal defense attorneys are providing a review below.

Jury Trials in Criminal Cases

If a criminal case proceeds to jury trial, the judge presides over the trial and is essentially the final arbiter of all issues besides the factual determinations and credibility assessments which are reserved solely for the jury. 

The judge's determinations will include ruling on evidentiary objections, called rules of admissibility, made by the parties during live testimony, ruling on purely legal issues such as which jury instructions will be presented to the jury.

They also must decide whether or not expert witnesses are qualified to testify, whether a motion to suppress or a motion in limine will be granted to limit the presentation of evidence to the jury. Further, they must decide whether ti allow a defendant to represent themselves after a Faretta motion is filed.

Additionally, they must decide whether jury misconduct has occurred, and whether or not any grounds exist to declare the case a mistrial. If the defendant is convicted at trial of one or more offenses, the judge will also determine the appropriate sentence.

If there is a finding of guilt, or no contest, in criminal case, then the next step in the process is called “sentencing”. The judge will impose penalties based on arguments from both parties and jury recommendations, if there was a jury trial. In bench trials, the judge acts alone to determine penalties.

See related: Character Evidence

Warrant Applications by Law Enforcement

Long before a case proceeds to a jury trial, however, the judge is involved. Even before arrest, a judge may evaluate and either approve or disapprove an application by law enforcement to search a particular person or location, or to arrest a suspect. 

The judge's role as neutral arbitrator of probable cause in warrant applications is crucial to ensure fairness in the criminal justice system.

Arraignment and Setting Bail in Criminal Court

Once an arrest has been made, the defendant's first appearance before the judge will be at arraignment. The judge will take the defendant's plea – either guilty, not guilty, or in rare cases a demurrer. 

The judge will also address issues such as the setting of bail, and in the case of defendants released on their own recognizance, the conditions of release such as electronic monitoring, attendance of classes, stay-away and protective orders, and others.

Ruling on Motions and Court Schedule

At other pretrial proceedings, the judge will be called upon to rule on motions and address requests by the parties.  

The most common request is to continue the matter to a new date. The judge has the responsibility of managing the court's calendar and ensuring that matters are proceeding in an efficient manner, but not so fast that the parties do not have a reasonable time to resolve them in a fair manner. 

This is a constant tension given the generally overcrowded criminal court calendars that most judges are expected to manage. The issue of scheduling touches upon an informal, but very influential role, which judges play in criminal cases. 

By refusing to continue a case which is “getting old,” a judge can subtly, or sometimes not-so-subtly, encourage the parties to reach a settlement. At bench conferences and in other off-the-record conversations, the judge can hear the parties' concerns and evaluations of the case and offer advice on a possible disposition. 

This advice is often valuable, particularly since the defendant always has the option of “pleading open,” meaning simply entering a guilty plea and allowing the court to sentence them without the benefit of a negotiated plea. 

By offering an “indicated sentence,” meaning a non-binding promise by the judge to the defendant of what they would receive if they choose to plead open, the judge can effectively set an outer-bound on the defendant's exposure which can have a significant impact in the parties' thinking about resolving the case by negotiation.

See related: Civil Compromise in Criminal Cases and House Arrest

Rule on Miscellaneous Requests

Judges in criminal cases are also often called upon to rule on miscellaneous requests by the parties during the course of a case, such as a motion to continue. These can include requests to travel outside of the jurisdiction by a defendant who is out of custody on their own recognizance.

They also must rule on a request by a prosecutor for a stay-away order against the defendant based on alleged harassment or intimidation of a witness, and others.

One critical area in which the defense often approaches the judge is with a request for government funding of an expert witness or investigator to assist an indigent criminal defendant. The judge must balance the defendant's constitutional right to present an effective defense with the responsibility to manage the public's money in a prudent manner.

Contact our Criminal Attorneys for Help

Judges in criminal cases serve many roles before, during, and after trials. If you or a family member is interested in learning more about judicial functions in criminal cases related to your own matter, contact our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys for an initial consultation.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm with a team of skilled lawyers who have decades of combined experience and a record of success in all type of criminal charges.

Our main office is located in the San Fernando Valley next to the Van Nuys Courthouse at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401. We also have an office in Century City at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Contact our firm for a consultation at (310) 328-3776.

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