The following information is intended as a generic description of the flow of a criminal case and a brief description of the proceedings that may occur.  It is provided for explanation and reference as a courtesy to reporters. It is not intended to be a comprehensive explanation of the law, nor of all of the issues and possible proceedings that may occur in a criminal case.

It does not suggest that any particular criminal matter will follow all of these steps.





















Misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum fine of $1000 and a county jail term of one year or less. However, there are some exceptions; for example, spousal abuse can carry a $6000 maximum fine. Examples of misdemeanors include petty theft, prostitution, vandalism, and driving under the influence.



Felonies are punishable by a state prison term or death. Common examples of felonies are murder, selling drugs, robbery and rape. The processing of a felony usually follows this order:


At the first court appearance, the following events occur:

The defendant is informed of the charges against him (or her), and if the defendant cannot afford an attorney of his choice, an attorney is appointed by the Court.

1.      The defendant is advised of his constitutional rights.

2.      The defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest.

3.      The Court sets bail and the defendant is remanded to custody, or the defendant is released on his or her "Own Recognizance" or "O.R."




A preliminary hearing is held to determine if there is sufficient evidence that the defendant committed the crime and a trial should be held.  If the defendant is "held to answer," the prosecuting agency files a document called the Information. The defendant will subsequently be arraigned again.


The Information must be filed within 15 days of the date the defendant was "held to answer".  The trial must begin within 60 days of the arraignment on the Information, unless the defendant consents to a date beyond the 60-day period.  It is not unusual for the parties to agree to extend the trial beyond the 60-day date.












Law and Discovery


‘Law and Discovery’ refers to proceedings prior to and/or in preparation for trial,

wherein questions of law are resolved and disclosure of facts and evidence are

made. These matters are commonly referred to as law and motion and discovery proceedings.  


A motion is an oral or written request that a party makes to the court for a ruling or an order on a particular point.  There are many types of motions, for example: a “motion to reduce bail” asks the court to lower the amount of bail needed to release the defendant from custody.  A “motion to set” asks the judge to set a date for a future trial”. A “motion to quash” asks the court to make something void or ineffective, such as to quash a subpoena.



Ex Parte Proceedings


The words “ex parte” mean “from one side only” in Latin. Ex parte motions are matters that have not been previously scheduled to be heard by the Court.  The party bringing the ‘ex parte’ motion is required to give 24 hours notice to the other side that the motion is being brought before the court, except under unusual circumstances.




It is not unusual for the attorneys for both sides in a case to meet with the judge informally to discuss scheduling or other procedural matters.  These meetings may take place in the judge’s chambers and no record will be made of the meetings. The judge does not make any rulings or orders regarding the case at these informal meetings.


A ‘pre-trial conference’ is a meeting of the judge and lawyers to plan a trial, discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, review proposed evidence and witnesses, and set a trial schedule.  Typically, the judge and the lawyers may  discuss the possibility of settling the case.


















A trial is a formal hearing to determine the guilt of a defendant who is charged with a crime.


Jury Trial

In a criminal trial, whether the defendant is guilty of the crime charged is a question of fact which, in a jury trial, must be decided by a jury. Questions of law, on the other hand, must be decided by a judge. For example, whether there is sufficient evidence in a case to convict any defendant of possession of narcotics is a question of law. It is the judge's responsibility to decide which are questions of law and which are questions of fact.


Jury Selection (Voir Dire)

In a jury trial, the selection of the jury is made from a panel of prospective jurors. They are questioned by the judge and the attorneys, during a phase of trial called voir dire to determine their qualifications to act as trial jurors. Voir dire is a legal term meaning "to speak the truth" and refers to this questioning process.


The voir dire process takes place before opening statements. In a criminal case, the judge begins the questioning of the prospective jurors. When the judge has completed the initial examination, the attorneys for each side have the right to question the prospective jurors.


In criminal cases, the identification of the prospective and sworn jurors is kept confidential during the course of the trial. The law mandates the sealing of all sworn juror (including alternate jurors) identifying information after a verdict is returned in a criminal jury proceeding. The identifying information includes juror names, addresses, and telephone numbers.


Challenges to Jurors

A challenge is an objection made regarding the prospective jurors which results in

their dismissal from the panel. An individual juror may be excused after either a Challenge for Cause, a Peremptory Challenge, or by Stipulation of counsel.


a. Challenge for Cause

The challenging party must state a cause or reason why the prospective juror

should be excluded from the jury panel. The challenge is usually made out of

the presence of the jury. Examples include actual or implied bias on the part of the prospective juror or the disqualification of a juror based on his or her inability to perform the required duties. The number of allowable challenges for cause is unlimited. The challenge is then either permitted or denied by the court.



b. Peremptory Challenge (CCP Section 231)

This type of challenge is exercised to exclude a prospective juror from the

jury panel. No reason need be given by the challenging party. Assuming the

peremptory challenge isn't being used to exclude a specific group of people (e.g., based on race or gender), it is granted automatically. If the challenge is being used to exclude a specific group, this may lead to a declaration of mistrial. If the maximum sentence for a felony offense charged is the death penalty or life with or without parole, the defendant and the prosecution may each exercise 20 challenges.


c. Juror Excused by Stipulation

This occurs when the court approves and both parties agree to excuse a

juror. The number of allowable stipulations to excuse jurors is unlimited.


Written Juror Questionnaires

Sometimes written questionnaires are given to jurors prior to voir dire to assist in

jury selection. These questionnaires can simplify the process of determining

hardship and individual juror bias regarding the issues being tried. Questionnaires are usually prepared by counsel for a specific case.


Preliminary Jury Instructions and Admonishment of Jury

The judge may give preliminary instructions to the jury after voir dire is completed.

The judge may inform the jurors of the different stages of the trial proceedings, and explain the language that will be used at trial.


Opening Statements

Opening statements explain to the jury what the party intends to prove in the trial.


Presentation of Evidence

In a criminal trial, the Prosecution must present their case first. The defendant will have an opportunity to present evidence after the prosecution ‘rests’ (concludes their case). The following will occur during the presentation of the case by either side:

* Trial motions and objections

* Witnesses called to testify

* Exhibits marked or admitted


Exhibits Marked and Admitted

When exhibits are identified and described on the record, they will be

assigned a number or letter. (Prosecution exhibits are usually marked by

number, and defendant’s exhibits are usually marked by letter.)


Closing Argument

Closing arguments summarize each party's evidence as it proves its case or disproves the other party's case.  During closing argument, the parties try to persuade the jury to vote in their favor. In a criminal trial, the People speak first, then the defendant, and then the prosecution will have another opportunity to argue.



A verdict is the decision by the jury. One Guilty and one Not Guilty verdict form for each felony count are prepared. 


Penalty Verdict – Capital Case  - Separate Verdict Required

If a defendant is found guilty of first-degree murder and one or more special

circumstances are found to be true, the jury must decide if the punishment will be

the penalty of DEATH or confinement in state prison for a term of LIFE






Jury Instructions

After closing arguments, the court must instruct the jury in the law which applies to the case. The jury instructions are printed documents discussed by the judge and attorneys beforehand.  The judge reads the instructions to the jury and the jury has the instructions with them during their deliberations.


Jury Deliberations

Jury deliberation is the period during which the jury considers whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. This occurs after closing arguments and jury instructions. The jury deliberations are confidential and only the sworn jury panel is present during deliberations. When deliberations begin, the jury will select a foreperson. The foreperson records the decision on a verdict form at the conclusion of deliberations. During deliberations, the jury may have questions that may be answered by the judge, in consultation with the attorneys, or they may request that portions of the testimony be read back to them.


Jury Verdict  

The jury foreperson will notify court staff when the jury has reached a verdict. All parties will assemble in the courtroom and the judge will review the verdicts and then hand them to the Judicial Assistant to be read. Criminal juries must return a unanimous verdict as to all issues before them.


Polling the Jury

At either counsel's request, the judge may instruct the Judicial Assistant to "poll"

the jury. Polling the jury means that each individual juror is asked whether he or

she agrees with the verdict.