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What Do You Do if You Are On Trial For a Crime in California?

In the State of California, accused criminals are entitled to a fair trial. Pending the defendant's first appearance in a Criminal Court, they are advised to acquire legal representation following whose legal counsel they may choose to either plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest based on the evidence and associated penalties in the accused's case. Defendants that cannot afford to hire a private lawyer are usually assigned attorneys from the county Public Defender's Office.

After entering a plea in response to the alleged charges, the judge may set a bail bond, release the defendant on their "own recognizance" or refuse bail and send the defendant back to jail. Ultimately, the ideal course of action will be dependent on the severity of the charges and the culpability of the accused.

Records that are considered public may be accessible from some third-party websites. These websites often make searching simpler, as they are not limited by geographic location, and search engines on these sites may help when starting a search for a specific or multiple records. To begin using such a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide:

  • The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile
  • The location or assumed location of the record or person involved. This includes information such as the city, county, or state that person resides in or was accused in.

Third-party sites are independent from government sources, and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party sites may vary.

What Percentage of Criminal Cases go to Trial in California?

California Courts publish annual court statistics detailing the state's caseload trend and performance by tier of court. The 2017/2018 fiscal year report indicates that only 3% of felony cases, 1% of misdemeanor cases, and under 8% of infractions made it to trial in California. According to this data, most criminal cases in the state are resolved following a plea bargain. In selected cases, the prosecution dismisses charges due to the lack of evidence and some defendants prevail at preliminary hearings if their motion to suppress evidence is granted by the judge.

When does a Criminal Defendant Have the Right to a Trial?

Criminal defendants in California have the right to trial as soon as a criminal charge is filed against them. Upon arrest, the prosecutor handling a case is tasked with deciding whether or not to file charges and, if so, what charges to file. Following the filing, an arraignment is scheduled at which point, the defendant may decide to enter a plea bargain or plead, not guilty. Typically, a trial date is set as soon as the criminal defendant opts to plead 'not guilty' to the charges leveled against them.

What are the Stages of a Criminal Trial in California?

On the scheduled trial date, the defendant, prosecutor, defense attorney, and the plaintiff are required to be present.

Below are the stages of a criminal trial in California:

  • Motion filing by the defendant's attorney (if applicable)
  • Conference with counsel on both sides to get a general overview of the case
  • Jury selection in accordance with California's Code of Civil Procedure 223
  • Opening Statements by the prosecuting attorney first, followed by the defense attorney
  • Prosecution's case (evidence and witness testimonies)
  • Defense's case (evidence and witness testimonies)
  • Prosecution's rebuttal (if any)
  • Closing arguments
  • Jury instructions, verdict, and possible sentencing

Before sentencing, additional stages involved in capital offense trials include:

  • Grand Jury's deliberation of aggravated circumstances and mitigating circumstances
  • Victim impact statements
  • Jury sentence recommendations
  • Judge's sentencing

How Long Does it Take For a Case to Go to Trial in California?

All criminal defendants in the State of California have the fundamental right to a "speedy" trial. This right is guaranteed under both the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 15, of the California Constitution. California Penal Code 1382 further defines what a "speedy trial" is depending on the severity of a criminal charge.

For a felony, a criminal defendant has the right to be brought to trial within 60 days from the date of arraignment, mistrial, or appealed retrial. This time frame is reduced to 30-45 days for misdemeanor cases. Generally speaking, California's criminal procedures allow between 48 hours and a few weeks for an accused to be arraigned in court.

Most defendants, especially those remanded in jail, want to enforce their rights to trial. Even then, a defendant may decide to "waive time" and consent to a later trial date than the law provides.

What Happens When a Court Case Goes to Trial in California?

When a court case goes to trial in California, the judge and attorneys are required to select and screen jurors for the case. Usually, the attorney's representing both the plaintiff and the defendant will be required to interrogate the jurors to ensure their fairness and impartiality.

During the trial, both the prosecution and defense will present and back their cases up with evidence and witness testimonies. The burden of proving guilt in an ongoing criminal case rests solely on the state government. As such, the prosecutor must prove each and every element of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the defense also provides evidence, the prosecution has the right to introduce rebuttal testimony or evidence. After all the tangible evidence is presented, closing arguments are presented and the jury is tasked with deliberating and concluding as to whether the defendant is guilty or not. If found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, sentencing will follow on the same day or at a later hearing date.

Can you be Put on Trial Twice for the Same Crime in California?

No. In accordance with the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an acquitted defendant can never be tried again for the same crime in California. This means that if a jury panel declares a person not guilty in a court of competent jurisdiction, the defendant will be released and never be retried for the same charges in the same state. Notwithstanding, a case can be tried a second time in California if:

  • The case was dismissed based on delay and insufficient evidence
  • Within the jurisdiction of the federal court or courts of other states
  • If the trial ended with a "hung jury" that is, a jury that could not unanimously agree on a verdict
  • If the trial ended in a mistrial

Note that the law maintains that a "not guilty" finding is not similar to a finding of innocence. Thus, details of the arrest and acquittal will still show on the defendant's criminal record.

How Do I Lookup a Criminal Court Case in California?

California Courts feature various services for looking up transcripts, dockets, and records of ongoing, pending, and concluded criminal cases within their jurisdiction. These methods can include:

  • Visiting the particular courthouse in person
  • Making request via mail to the clerk of the respective court
  • Requesting records online through the courts' websites or using third-party alternatives such as

To look up a criminal case in person, requestors are required to identify the particular courthouse handling the case. This is easy if the querying party knows the superior court or appellate court where the case was taken. Each courthouse assigns a court clerk to manage and keep case files for future references. Therefore, all requests for the information included in criminal case files must be directed to the applicable court clerk. The clerk will require the case number, names of the parties involved, or the approximate date the case was filed. Some counties provide request forms to facilitate this process. Where the requester does not know the case number or where a case was filed, they may check the criminal indexes or search through court files in different county courthouses.

To submit a request for information included in a court case file by mail, the requester will need to send an application to the applicable court clerk. Many California Courts provide detailed guides on how to get records by mail on their websites. While some courts may require written applications, others may need the requester to download, print, and complete an application form. The courts also require the requester to provide the appropriate fees in the form of a check or money order as well as a self-addressed stamped envelope for return postage. Interested persons may contact the courthouse prior to sending the request for other inquiries.

How to Access Electronic Court Records in California

Some California courts allow online access to dockets, transcripts, and other public information included in criminal case files. The steps for obtaining e-records vary from one county courthouse to another. Most counties provide an online searchable index of criminal cases filed within their jurisdiction. To use this, interested persons can remotely conduct searches by name, filing date, or case number without going to the courthouse.

Verbatim reports and trial transcripts of criminal cases are not maintained by the court clerks in California. Typically, these can be found with attending court reporter, prosecutor, or defense attorney for the case. The online availability of transcripts generally varies among courts.

Criminal cases accepted and reviewed by the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals can be found through the California Appellate Courts Case Information System.

Criminal cases handled in any of the four federal district courts in California can be accessed online via the Public Access to Court Electronics service (PACER).

Additionally, only public information is available through the online court portals. Juvenile delinquency proceedings, information identifying victims and witnesses, and other confidential/sensitive information cannot be located using online resources.

How Do I Remove Public Court Records in California?

In order to remove public court records in California, the court will be required to intervene. Interested persons must follow these steps to obtain a court order authorizing the sealing or removal of a public criminal court record in California:

  • Seek legal advice first from an attorney
  • Petition the particular courthouse where the charges were filed or arrest was made
  • Attend the scheduled hearing
  • Provide evidence on why sealing the record is in the best interest of justice
  • The judge may then deny the motion or issue a court order/subpoena instructing the clerk to seal parts or all of record

While criminal court records are public records in the State of California, some records may be restricted to selected persons with direct and tangible interest in the records. Such confidential records can include sensitive personal information, the identity of victims and witnesses, as well as juvenile delinquency and dependency records.

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