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What Happens After a Crime?


By: the California Office of Victim’s Services

When there is a crime, the criminal justice process usually follows these steps:

Law enforcement interviews the victim and witnesses

After a crime, the first people that victims and witnesses usually have contact with are law enforcement officers. Law enforcement’s job is to learn as much as they can about the crime and to protect the crime scene and any evidence.

You must cooperate and tell them everything you know. Some of the questions they ask may seem insensitive. But, they need this information to identify and arrest the suspect.

Ask for a card with the officer or investigator’s name and number. That way, you can contact the officer later if you remember other details. Sometimes, the officer will contact you later to get more information. If there is enough evidence, law enforcement can arrest a suspect right away. Or, a judge can issue an arrest warrant later.

If, after a reasonable period of time, there is still not enough evidence to make an arrest, the case can be closed. (Except for homicide cases –which are never closed.) Rape victims can have a friend, relative or counselor with them during the police interview, medical exam and any follow-up exam. If you want a counselor or advocate, the officer will call the rape crisis center and make sure you get someone to support you.

The District Attorney (DA) files charges

If the law enforcement believes there is enough evidence, they will send the case to the DA (prosecutor’s office). The DA will review the case and if there is enough evidence, the DA will file criminal charges (a Complaint).

Remember: If the DA decides not to file charges, it does not necessarily mean that the crime did not happen. It just means the prosecutor feels there is not enough evidence to prove it in court. Most criminal cases are prosecuted by the DA or City Attorney on behalf of the people of California.

If the offender is an adult, or tried as an adult, there are 3 kinds of criminal charges:

Infraction: A minor violation of a law. There may be a fine, but no jail time.

Misdemeanor: A more serious crime that Misdemeanor can be punished by up to 1 year in jail and/or a fine.

Felony: A serious crime that can be punished by up to 1 year in county jail, more than 1 year in prison, or by death. There can also be a fine.

The Deputy DA or Victim Witness Center can tell you more about the charges.

If the offender is under 18

Offenders under 18 are usually prosecuted in juvenile court. (Some offenders 14-17 who commit very serious crimes can be tried in adult court.) If found criminally responsible, the offender can be sent to:

  • The California Youth Authority,
  • Juvenile Hall,
  • A group or foster home, or
  • The youth can be put on probation.

The DA (or Victim/Witness) can tell you more about the charges and the possible punishments.

The suspect (defendant) goes to court

If the prosecutor files a Complaint, the defendant will come to court and be arraigned. This means the judge will tell the defendant what the charges are. The judge will ask the defendant to enter a guilty or not guilty plea. If the defendant pleads “not guilty,” the judge will set a date for the next hearing. If the charges are misdemeanors, the judge will set a trial date. If one or more of the charges is a felony, the judge will set a date for a preliminary hearing.

If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will set a date for a sentencing hearing. Victims and witnesses are welcome, but do not need to come to the arraignment.

The defendant gets a lawyer

In every criminal case, except infractions, the defendant has the right to a lawyer. If the defendant cannot afford one, the judge will appoint a lawyer at the arraignment. It is the defendant’s lawyer’s job to get ready for the trial. So, a lawyer or investigator working for the defendant may contact you. You do not have to talk to anyone who is helping the defendant, or anyone else until you go to court to testify. If they contact you, they must say who they are, why they are contacting you and that they work for the defendant. If you don’t want to talk to them, just tell them. Say, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

If you do want to talk to someone from the defense, get their name and phone number. It is important you tell the officer or prosecutor assigned to your case. They may go to the interview with you. No matter who you talk to, inside or outside of court, always tell the truth.

There is a preliminary hearing (prelim) for felony cases

The prelim is when a judge (not a jury) decides:

  • If a crime has happened, and
  • If there is enough reason to believe the defendant committed the crime.

Victims and witnesses may have to testify. But, in certain kinds of cases, the court can let law enforcement officers give “hearsay” testimony. This means the officers can tell the court what the victims or witnesses told them. At trial, the witnesses and victims generally have to testify. If the defendant asks to have the prelim closed to the public, the victims and their support people can still come, even if they do not have to testify. After the prelim, if the judge thinks there is not enough evidence to believe a crime has occurred or that the defendant committed the crime, the judge will drop the charges. If the defendant is in custody, the defendant will be released. Otherwise, the judge will order the defendant to stand trial. If this happens, the prosecutor will file another document saying what the charges are. This document is called the “Information.”

Sometimes there is an indictment instead of a prelim

A Grand Jury may indict the defendant. In that case, there is no prelim. The defendant will go directly to trial. Grand Jury proceedings are closed to the public. The jurors cannot discuss the case outside the Grand Jury room. Or, sometimes the defendant decides to “waive” (skip) the prelim. If the prosecutor agrees to this, the judge will set a date for trial.

There is an arraignment (on the Information)

After a prelim or Grand Jury indictment, the defendant will come back to court for an arraignment. This is a short hearing where the prosecutor files an “Information” and the judge orders the defendant to stand trial and tells the defendant what the charges are. The judge will ask the defendant to plead guilty or not guilty. The judge will set a date for the trial. Victims and witnesses are welcome, but do not have to come to the arraignment.

There is a settlement conference

In most cases, there is a court date when the defendant, his lawyer and the prosecutor go to court to try to settle the case. The judge meets with the defendant’s lawyer and the prosecutor to see if they can solve the case without going to trial. This is called “plea bargaining.” The prosecutor should ask for the victim’s input. But, it is the prosecutor, not the victim, who makes the final decision on the plea bargain.

If the lawyers agree on a plea bargain, there will not be a trial. The defendant will have to enter a plea and be sentenced. The judge may sentence the defendant at the same time or later. If they cannot agree on a plea bargain, there will be a trial. Even if there is a trial, the case can be settled any time
during the court proceedings and prior to the verdict.

There is a trial

The trial is when a judge or jury hears the evidence and decides on the case according to the law. This can take a few days or several months.

A trial can have many phases, including:

  • Pre-trial motions (like whether the DA or defense lawyer can use certain evidence at trial)
  • Jury selection
  • Opening statements (first the prosecutor, then the defense)
  • Evidence and witnesses (first the prosecutor, then the defense)
  • The prosecutor and defense may show more evidence (rebuttal evidence)
  • Closing arguments (first the prosecutor, then the defense, then the prosecutor again)
  • Jury deliberations
  • The verdict (guilty or not guilty). When all the jurors cannot agree on a verdict (called a “hung jury”), the DA decides to dismiss the case OR have a new trial.
  • If the defendant is guilty, the judge sets a date for sentencing.

Victims can come to the trial if they want. But, if the victim is scheduled to testify, they cannot watch the trial until after they testify.

If the defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, there is a sentencing The report includes information on how the crime affected the victim physically, emotionally, and/or financially. This information is taken from conversations the probation officer has with the victim, the police report, and the victim impact statement. The victim should keep good records of any out-of-pocket expenses related to the crime.

The Victim Witness Center can help you write your statement. Just call for an appointment. You also have the right to speak at the sentencing hearing.

The defendant may be sentenced to probation or state prison.

Probation

For less serious crimes and if a defendant has a good record, the judge will place the defendant on probation. For misdemeanors, probation usually lasts 1-3 years and 3-5 years for felonies. The judge may also order up to 1 year in county jail. If the defendant is convicted of a felony and violates probation (doesn’t follow the judges order, commits a new crime), the judge may revoke probation and send the defendant to prison.

Prison

For most felony crimes, a judge may sentence the defendant to prison for a set period of time. The judge chooses between a lower term (shortest time locked up), middle term or upper term (longest time locked up). The judge decides on the sentence by looking at the positive things in favor of the defendant (good record, less serious crime) and the negative things (bad record, very serious crime). For the most serious cases, like murder, the judge will sentence the defendant to an indeterminate period of time or one that is not fixed (15 years-to-life, 25 years-tolife). This means the defendant stays in prison until the Board of Prison Terms decides he is ready to be set free.

Can the defendant appeal his case?

Yes. Defendants who are not satisfied with the outcome of the trial or the judge’s decision can appeal their case. When they “appeal,” they ask a higher court to change what the trial court decided. Appeals are very common. The Courts of Appeal review the trial court record to decide if legal errors were made. If a Court of Appeal or the California Supreme Court reverses a conviction, there may be a new trial. If so, crime victims and witnesses may have to come back to court to testify again.

If you want to know if the case you were involved with is being appealed, call the California Attorney General’s Office, Office of Victims’ Services at:
(877) 433-9069 (toll-free)