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What to expect if arrested on a felony charge in California

In California, if you are convicted of a felony, the repercussions can be steep. This blog entry will detail the process that defendants undergo in the justice system.

Felonies are serious crimes like sexual violence, robbery, murder and possession of large quantities or distribution of illegal drugs. Conviction on felony charges can result in sentences of more than a year in prison or even death.

After an arrest, the defendant is taken to jail and either allowed to leave if no charges are forthcoming or a bond is set and the defendant pays the bail or is sometimes released on his or her own recognizance. Some charges are not eligible for bail, and the defendant remains locked up.

The first court appearance after the bond hearing is the arraignment where the defendant is formally charged with the crime and informed of one's constitutional right to representation by a public defender if he or she is indigent. The defendant then enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest.

If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the judge accepts the plea and the defendant is convicted on the spot. A no contest plea is similar to a guilty plea in that the defendant doesn't disagree with the charge, but the conviction is not able to be used against him or her in any civil proceedings.

Those who plead not guilty will next appear at a preliminary hearing, a type of "mini-trial" where the judge weighs the prosecution's evidence and determines whether enough evidence exists to hold the defendant over for a trial.

The prosecution then has 15 days to file a bill of information and the trial must begin within 60 days of the arraignment on the information filed by the state. Defendants may waive their constitutional right to a speedy trial if they choose.

Defendants can also waive the right to a jury trial and let the judge decide their fate. If they choose a jury trial, a jury is picked by the defense and prosecution attorneys.

The trial itself consists of witness testimony and evidence submitted by the prosecution and refuted by the defense. Then the jury deliberates the fate of the defendant, deciding on a guilty or not guilty verdict.

Further questions on the trial process can be addressed to a defendant's criminal defense attorney.

Source: The Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara, "Felonies" Dec. 09, 2014

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