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The punishment for a felony crime is usually:

  • a year or more in state prison, or
  • a death sentence

Examples of felony violations are:

  • murder
  • possession of dangerous drugs for sale
  • robbery
  • rape

Felony cases are usually processed like this:

  1. Arrest
  2. Arraignment
  3. Preliminary Hearing
  4. Jury Trial or Court Trial
  1. Arrest

    The police arrest the defendant and take him or her to jail.

    Then, one of 3 things happens:
    • The jail lets the defendant out without filing charges, or
    • The defendant posts bail/bond or is released on his/her own recognizance ("OR"). If this happens, the authorities tell the defendant when to go to court for arraignment, or
    • The defendant stays in jail. Law enforcement officers transport the defendant to the court for arraignment.
  2. Arraignment

    The arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court.

    A judge (or judicial officer) tells the defendant:
    • what the charges are,
    • about his/her constitutional rights, and
    • that if s/he doesn’t have enough money to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint one.

    The defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest (also known as "Nolo Contendere").

    Here's what the pleas mean:
    Not Guilty means the defendant says s/he did not commit the crime.

    Guilty means the defendant admits s/he committed the crime. The judge finds the defendant guilty and enters a conviction in the court record.

    No Contest means the defendant does not contest (disagree with) the charge. This plea is the same as a guilty plea, except the conviction cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit.

    In some cases, the judge will let the defendant out of jail on his/her "Own Recognizance".

    Or, the judge can set bail and send the defendant back to the jail.

  3. Preliminary Hearing

    At the preliminary hearing, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to "hold the defendant over" for trial.

    If the judge holds the defendant "to answer," the prosecutor will file a document called the Information. Then, the defendant will be arraigned on the Information. At that time, the defendant will enter a plea and proceed to trial.
  4. Jury Trial or Court Trial

    Jury Trial

    The law says how soon a defendant charged with a felony must be brought to trial. (See Section 1382 of the Penal Code .)

    The prosecutor must file the Information within 15 days of the date the defendant was "held to answer" at the preliminary hearing.

    The trial must start within 60 days of the arraignment on the Information.

    The defendant can “waive” the right to a speedy trial (called a waiver or "waives time"). This means s/he agrees to have the trial after the 60-day period.

    Before the trial starts, the lawyers choose a jury. During the trial, witnesses may testify and the lawyers present evidence. After all the evidence is presented and the lawyers give their arguments, the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

    If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, s/he will be released. The defendant can never be tried again for the same crime.

    If the defendant is found guilty, the case will be continued for sentencing, or the defendant may be sentenced right away.

    If the defendant doesn’t agree with the guilty verdict, s/he can appeal to the District Court of Appeals (or State Supreme Court if it is a death penalty case).

    Court Trial

    Sometimes, defendants agree to have a court trial instead of a jury trial. This means a judge, and not a jury, hears the evidence and arguments and decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
© 2021 Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara