The complaint is the document containing the alleged charges against you. The district attorney (the county elected prosecutor) has discretion whether to file the complaint in court, request more information from the police before pressing charges, negotiate a plea bargain with you, or in some cases use its discretion to choose not to prosecute the allegations against you. Filing the complaint in court just begins the court process—it does not end plea bargaining or negotiations.
The arraignment is your first court appearance, and it is almost always very short. At the arraignment, the judicial officer will inform you or your attorney of the alleged charges and your constitutional rights. You or your attorney will be provided with a copy of the accusatory pleading, which states the alleged charges. You, or your attorney on your behalf, will enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. The decision of how to plea is yours, not your attorney’s. Be sure that you understand the potential short and long-term consequences of any plea and that you are comfortable with the decision you are making.
A plea of not guilty is a statement that you did not commit the crime alleged, and if made then the case will be set for a future hearing. A plea of guilty is a statement that you did commit the crime alleged, and if made there will be no trial as to guilt but there will be a trial or hearing as to penalty. A plea of no contest is a statement that you do not contest the charge. The effect of a plea of no contest has the same effect as a guilty plea except that the conviction cannot be used against you in a civil suit.
If you enter a plea of “not guilty,” you will begin pretrial hearings designed to resolve the case. Pretrial hearings often result in far better offers than what you are originally charged with. If you maintain your “not guilty” plea, you will ultimately proceed to trial.
At the arraignment, if you want to be represented by an attorney but cannot afford one, you may request a court appointed attorney. If the court determines that you meet the qualifications, an attorney will be appointed. You do not have the right to choose a court appointed attorney. If the court determines that you have the ability to pay all or part of the fees for services, the court will issue an order requiring you to pay.
The preliminary hearing is a mini-trial that takes place after you have been arraigned and before trial. You are only entitled to a preliminary hearing on a felony case. The judge does not determine whether you are guilty, but rather (1) whether a crime has been committed and (2) whether the prosecution has enough evidence with which to go to trial. The judge uses the “probable cause” standard—the prosecution must produce enough evidence that a reasonable jury could be convinced that you committed the specific alleged crime.
At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor will present evidence and may present witness testimony. The defense attorney may cross-examine witnesses, but cross-examination at this early stage this may or may not be to the defendant’s advantage, depending on the circumstances of the case.
Preliminary hearings are not held for misdemeanor charges or infractions.
In the criminal system, the California constitution and laws provide that felony prosecutions may proceed only after a judge or grand jury determines that there is “probable cause” to believe that the specific individual charged committed specific crimes. This is done either by “information” presented for examination and approval by a judge, or by indictment after a grand jury hearing and vote. This review is supposed to be objective and is for the purpose of preventing overzealous prosecutors from unjustified, groundless, or unfair prosecutions when “probable cause” does not exist.
In a criminal trial, a jury examines the evidence to decide whether, the prosecution has proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the alleged crime. In California, the criminal jury is composed of twelve jurors who are supposed to represent a cross section of the community in which the charged offense was committed. In order to convict you, the twelve jurors must unanimously agree that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is a very high standard for the prosecution to meet, however, keep in mind that when the district attorney decides to pursue charges against you it will devote considerable resources to prosecuting you. In deciding whether to proceed through trial, consider the evidence against you and in your favor, the lawfulness of the arrest, the potential short and long-term consequences of a conviction on your record, and the financial and personal costs a trial may present.