The very first (1st) court appearance is called the "arraignment." Just prior to arraignment, you will be read your rights and the charges against you. You will need to sign the rights form acknowledging that you understand these rights. You are not "waiving" your rights by signing the form. Someone from the Public Defender's office may also ask you about your contact and other information, so that we can represent you at the arraignment.
At the arraignment, the court typically appoints the public defender, if you can't afford a private attorney. At the arraignment, the court will provide the public defender, or your attorney, with a copy of the "complaint" which is a written document, filed by the prosecutor, the District Attorney, accusing you of one or more crimes. The "complaint" lists the charges or crimes. The arraignment judge also sets your next court dates which are usually for both a Felony Disposition Conference and a Preliminary Hearing. The judge will also set bail on your case or determine that you can be released, without bail, until the next hearing.
Within a day or a few days after the arraignment, the prosecutor usually starts sending to our office some of the police reports, laboratory reports, and copies of evidence items regarding your case. These reports and evidence items are called "discovery". Sometimes it takes a long time to get all the discovery. Discovery is extremely important because it allows us to discuss the evidence the prosecutor has against you.
The felony disposition conference is called the "FDC" and is also sometimes called the plea bargaining conference. You must be present, on time, at this conference. The judge, the prosecutor, and your lawyer all meet in the judge's office (along with other defense attorneys).
At FDC, the prosecutor will tell the judge the facts of the case from the perspective of the prosecutor. In other words, the prosecutor will tell the judge what the prosecutor thinks happened. The prosecutor will often, but not always, make an offer to settle your case without a trial and without a preliminary hearing. The offer is typically in the form of "If the defendant will plea guilty now to the charge we want him to plea guilty to, then at the time of sentencing the prosecution will recommend to the judge that the sentence be as follows:...".
An example of an offer by the prosecutor is when the prosecutor at FDC says, "If defendant pleas guilty to count 1", then at time of sentencing the prosecutor will have "No Opposition to Local Time". This is referred to as a NOLT offer. This means that the prosecution could recommend that you be placed on probation for up to five years, that you be ordered to pay fines and restitution, that you serve a period in jail of up to 365 days, and other probationary terms.
During the FDC, your lawyer may correct any misstatements by the prosecutor and also tell the judge true facts about your case, or true facts about you personally, which your lawyer believes will help your case. The lawyer will not tell the judge your secrets without your permission, but the lawyer cannot lie to the judge or mislead the judge.
The FDC judge will then tell your lawyer and the prosecutor that if you accept the prosecutor's offer, what you can expect from the judge at the time of sentencing. Some judges are very specific and will say: "I will send your client to prison for no more than X number of years" or "I will not send your client to prison," or "I will sentence him to jail for up to 365 days," or "I will sentence him up to 270 days in jail;" other judges will say: "I will not make any promises on this case" or "I need to see a probation report" or "I'll do the right thing, trust me." The person who makes the decision about the sentence you will receive is the judge.
If you are in custody at the time of the FDC, the sheriff will bring you to the courtroom.
If you are out of custody at the time of the FDC, you must arrive in the courtroom by 8:15 a.m.
Your attorney is required by law to tell you of the prosecutor's offer. Your lawyer will tell you what the prosecutor's offer was, what the judge said, and then it is up to you to decide whether or not you want to accept the offer. If you accept the offer by the prosecutor at the FDC to plea guilty, then a number of things happen.
First, you will review with an attorney the contents of a change of plea form (COP), which the attorney will explain to you. After you initial and sign the COP, you will give it back to your lawyer, who will review it, sign it and give it to the prosecutor so the prosecutor can sign it. The COP is then given to the judge.
Later that morning, you will appear in court in front of the judge. The judge will show you the COP and ask you questions about it such as: "Are these your initials?"; "Is that your signature?"; "This form says you want to plea guilty to count 1, is that what you want to do?"; "Did the attorney explain to you everything on this form?"; and, other questions to make sure you understand what you are doing, and that the plea is what you want to do. The decision to plea guilty is always your decision and your decision alone. Your attorney will give you the best advice possible based on years of education and experience, but the decision to plea guilty is ultimately yours and yours alone.
If you reject the prosecutor's FDC offer, then the offer goes away. The offer does not stay somewhere waiting for you to decide to take it; it's gone. So, when you reject the prosecutor's offer at the felony disposition conference, the date and time of your preliminary hearing are confirmed and you will not be brought in front of the judge at the FDC.
The "preliminary hearing" is also called a "preliminary examination." You must be present at the preliminary hearing. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for a judge to decide whether there is "sufficient cause" for the court to believe that one or more of the crime(s) charged on the complaint were committed and that you committed the crime(s). A new "plea bargain' may be offered prior to the preliminary hearing. You will have the same opportunity to accept or refuse their offer. If you accept the offer, you will fill out the COP and go before the judge as mentioned earlier.
If you refuse the offer, the prosecutor will call witnesses and put on evidence at the preliminary hearing. Your attorney will ask questions and challenge these witnesses and evidence. Your attorney may also present evidence at the preliminary hearing (for tactical reasons, presentation of such evidence is rare), but this is a decision your attorney will make.
At the end of the preliminary hearing, the judge will decide whether the evidence produced establishes probable cause to believe that you committed a crime. If the judge decides there is no probable cause, then you win. The charges will be dismissed, and you are free to go. If the judge decides there is probable cause to believe you committed any of the charged crimes, then the judge will issue an order requiring you to stand trial. The standard is very low and if the judge believes you COULD have committed the crime, you will stand trial.
If the preliminary hearing judge issues an order holding you to answer the charges at trial, then a date will be set for your arraignment for trial. This could be done immediately after the preliminary hearing. Arraignment for trial is a very brief court appearance in front of a judge typically lasting two minutes or less. You must be present at the arraignment for trial.
At the arraignment for trial, your lawyer may be given two things. First, your lawyer may be given a written document listing the charges you must face in the trial court. This document is called an "information". Second, your lawyer may be given a copy of the preliminary hearing transcript. The preliminary hearing transcript is a written version of what people said under oath at the preliminary hearing. If your trial arraignment is done immediately, the court will send these documents to your attorney later. Your lawyer WILL be given three dates at the trial arraignment: a motion cutoff date, a date for the trial readiness conference, and a date for the trial.
You do not have to be in court on the motion cutoff date. The motion cutoff date is the only date which you do not have to be in court. The motion cutoff date is the date by which your lawyer must file any pretrial motions. Other motions are trial motions and can only be made in front of the trial judge.
The trial readiness conference (Readiness) is designed to see if your case is ready for trial and to make an attempt to settle the case. You must be present at the trial readiness conference. Typically, the offer made by the prosecutor at the FDC is better for you than any offer made at Readiness, but this is not always the case.
The reason the prosecutor usually makes the best plea bargain offer at the FDC is to save money and reduce the work of prosecutors. It works like this: if you take the offer at the FDC, then the prosecutor does not have to reassign the case to another prosecutor. The prosecutor does not have to prepare the case for preliminary hearing. A prosecutor does not have to interview witnesses, bring the witnesses or evidence to court. Law enforcement officers will also not have to come to court. Therefore, the "bargain" for a prosecutor in a plea bargain is that it saves the prosecutor work, and saves the courts time and money. Of course, whether the offer is a "bargain" for you, is something that you will discuss with your lawyer. The decision whether to accept or reject a prosecutor's offer of a plea bargain is your decision.
If you accept the new plea bargain, you will fill out the COP, as mentioned above, and go before the judge. If you do not accept the offer, your trial date will be confirmed. You will then go to trial on that date. Your attorney will let you know what will happen after that.
How long does all of this take?
If you are in custody, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing within 10 "court days" from the date of your arraignment. "Court days" means those days in which the court is open for business; Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays are excluded. If you are out of custody, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing within 60 calendar days. If you are in custody, this 60 calendar days rule means that if you do not have a preliminary hearing within 60 calendar days you are entitled to a dismissal, unless you waive the right to a 'speedy' preliminary hearing. Your attorney will speak to you about waiving the right to a 'speedy' preliminary hearing, if necessary.
Arraignment for trial must occur within 15 days of your preliminary examination. The trial is required to begin within 60 days from the date of your trial court arraignment. You must be present on time, every day, of your trial.
So the time from your first arraignment, until the date your trial starts is usually 68 to 85 days. Cases that are more complicated, and cases that require experts or have special investigation needs, take longer to prepare for trial.
To effectively defend some cases, it is sometimes necessary for the person accused to give up ("waive") the right to a 'speedy' preliminary hearing and/or a 'speedy' trial, so the defense lawyer can obtain all the necessary evidence and reports from the prosecution and complete the defense investigation. Your attorney will advise you whether or not a waiver is necessary in your case and the reason for it. If your case was started by a grand jury indictment, special procedures apply and your lawyer will discuss these with you.
DO NOT TALK TO ANYONE ABOUT YOUR CASE, OTHER THAN YOUR ATTORNEY.
ANYONE ELSE MAY LATER BE FORCED TO TESTIFY AGAINST YOU.
THIS INCLUDES FAMILY AND FRIENDS.
Whether you are in or out of custody, you will need to have some information ready for when you talk to your lawyer about your case. To help him or her, please write or print the following:
1. Any questions you have.
2. The names, addresses, and telephone numbers of any and all witnesses.
3. The nicknames, or other names, these witnesses are known by, if any.
4. The names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people who can tell the court something
favorable about either the facts of the case or about you, the accused, personally.
If you are out of custody, an attorney will call you within a week of your arraignment. Make sure that our office has your contact information. If you don't hear from an attorney after a week, please telephone the Public Defender's office at (619) 338-4700 to make an appointment with your attorney to discuss your case.
If you are in custody of the San Diego County Jail, you may use a special lawyer telephone line to call the Office of the Public Defender free of charge; a receptionist will connect you to your attorney's telephone.