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A. Arrest and Booking

A criminal case begins when police arrest a person suspected of committing a misdemeanor or felony crime. The police must have probable cause to arrest a suspect.

Probable cause means that any reasonable police officer, under the same facts and circumstances, would decide that a crime has been committed and the suspect committed the crime.

Once arrested, the police may transport the suspect to the police station for questioning or directly to the county jail for booking.

Booking is the process in which the arresting officer submits a booking report to the jail and the corrections department takes custody of the suspect and incarcerates the suspect in the jail until the suspect is released on bail or his own recognizance.

B. Screening

The arresting officer submits his report to the District Attorney or City Attorney (misdemeanor cases only) with recommendations as to what charges should be filed.

The District Attorney and City Attorney are also called prosecutors. The prosecutor initially reads the police report and decides what if any charges will be filed against the suspect.

The prosecutor has a sworn duty to file charges only if the prosecutor conscientiously believes that there is sufficient evidence to prove the suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

C. Arraignment

If the prosecutor believes there is enough evidence to convict a suspect, he will file a criminal complaint with the court. The complaint consists of separate counts. Each count of a complaint sets forth a separate criminal offense.

When the complaint is filed, the court conducts an arraignment in which the court informs you that a criminal complaint has been filed by the prosecutor charging you with certain crimes. The court asks for your plea and your attorney will enter a not guilty plea.

If you are in custody, the court must decide if the amount of bail on which you were booked into jail is appropriate. Your lawyer will ask the court either to release you on your own recognizance without bail or to reduce the bail to the lowest possible amount.

After the bail issue is resolved, the court sets dates for your readiness conference and, if a felony, a preliminary hearing. Misdemeanor cases do not require preliminary hearings.

D. Readiness Conference

A readiness conference, sometimes called a settlement conference, is a court proceeding in which the prosecutor, defense lawyer and judge sit in the judge's chambers and discuss the facts of your case.

The court sets up this conference to see if a judge can encourage the prosecution and defense to resolve the case by a plea bargain. Sometimes, the judge will offer certain promises of leniency to the defense to induce a settlement.

Your Lawyer most likely will reject any plea bargain offer if your defense is strong and likely to prevail at trial. On the other hand, your lawyer may ask you to consider a plea bargain if the prosecution's evidence is strong enough to produce a guilty verdict at trial.

Each case turns on its own facts, and, for this reason, it is crucial that you choose an experienced lawyer who can properly evaluate your defense and give you the right advice.

If the case is settled by a plea bargain, the court takes your guilty plea and then sets a date for your sentencing in accordance with the plea bargain.

If you reject the plea bargain, and the case is a misdemeanor, the case proceeds directly to jury trial. If the case is a felony, the case proceeds to a preliminary hearing.

E. Preliminary Hearing

After the readiness conference in a felony case only, a preliminary hearing is held at which a judge decides if there is enough evidence to require the defendant to stand trial.

At this hearing, the defense has an opportunity to cross-examine prosecution witnesses and test the integrity of the prosecution's evidence. The standard at a preliminary hearing is not proof of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as it is at a jury trial; rather the standard is whether there is probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the offense(s) charged in the complaint.

Judges are reluctant to dismiss charges at a preliminary hearing and, in most cases, rule that there is enough evidence for the defendant to stand trial. The next stage of a felony case is a second arraignment.