In California, criminal offenses are either infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. A felony is an offense punishable with death, imprisonment in the state prison, or imprisonment
in the county jail pursuant to section 1170(h), which applies to persons with prior serious/violent convictions.
All other offenses are misdemeanors unless classified as an infraction. Misdemeanors are punishable up to one year in county jail, $1000 fine, or both.
There are offenses that are “wobblers” which can be either a felony or misdemeanor within the discretion of the prosecution.
Depending on the nature of the offense, the possible punishments and procedure differ. Infractions are like traffic tickets. The only permissible punishment would be a fine. You
would receive a citation or ticket from the officer. Follow the instructions on the citation as to how to pay the fine; whether and when to appear in traffic court. There may be consequences from the Department of Motor Vehicles. However they do not count as a criminal conviction.
You have no right to a jury trial or right to appointed counsel for infractions.
The prosecution starts the criminal procedure in the case of felonies and misdemeanors
by filing a Complaint.
Upon arrest for either a misdemeanor or felony, one is booked into the jail and either
released on bail or on your own recognizance, or remains in custody.
The first court appearance on either type of charge is called the arraignment. At this
first appearance, you are informed of the charges filed, advised of your constitutional rights,
including your right to jury trial and appointment of counsel. Usually a not guilty plea is
In misdemeanor cases, the next court appearance is a pre-trial/readiness hearing, at
which your counsel will discuss a disposition to present. Any motions filed by your attorney will be heard prior to trial.
You have the option of waiving a jury trial and have your case heard just by the judge.
If you choose a jury trial, a date will be set for trial to commence. The prosecution, your
defense counsel, and the court select jurors to hear your case. At the jury trial, the prosecution gives an opening statement to the jurors. Your attorney may give an opening statement or wait until the People have presented their witnesses to address the jurors. Evidence is presented, including witnesses and documents. The prosecutor and the defense attorney give their final argument to the jurors. The jurors deliberate and return with a verdict if they agree unanimously.
If found guilty, there will be a sentencing hearing date set.
Appeals from misdemeanor convictions are filed in the Appellate Division of the
In a felony case, following the initial arraignment on the Complaint, the matter must be
set for a preliminary hearing. That hearing is held before a judge, who hears the
prosecution’s evidence and determines whether there is probable cause to believe an offense
has been committed and the defendant committed it. The preliminary hearing is supposed to
be held within 10 days of your arraignment, but often you will be asked to waive this time
because your counsel needs more time to prepare.
The prosecution has the option of seeking an Indictment from a grand jury.
This process is usually reserved for significant felony matters, involving multiple defendants or conspiracies.
The People then file the formal Information of Indictment, which includes all of the
charged offenses, and any prior conviction accusations.
You will return to court to be arraigned on the Information or Indictment. At the
arraignment you will be informed of the charges and of your right to jury trial and appointment
of counsel. If you have not yet been appointed counsel, counsel will be appointed. A plea to
the Information or Indictment will be entered. Then the case will be set for pretrial/readiness
There is usually pretrial preparation to be performed by your attorney, so it is the rare
case that does not require you to waive your speedy trial rights in order to give your attorney
sufficient time to prepare. Negotiations between the prosecutor and your defense counsel will be conducted during this pretrial time period.
You have the right to waive a jury trial. If you do not waive, the case will eventually be
set for jury trial, which will follow the above discussed procedures – selecting the jury, opening arguments by counsel, presentation of evidence, closing arguments, and deliberation.
After the verdict, the case will be set for sentencing. Your counsel will again need
sufficient time to prepare for the sentencing, as in many cases, the judge has discretion in
selecting the appropriate sentence.
Once you are sentenced, you can appeal your conviction and sentence. Your trial attorney has
an obligation to file the Notice of Appeal within the time limits.