I’ve been charged with a felony, what happens now?

A felony is any offense punishable by more than 364 days in jail or (only in special circumstance, by murder cases) by death.

As with misdemeanors, a felony prosecution begins when a police report is presented to the District Attorney’s Office, which then decides to file felony charges against the defendant. After a defendant has been charged, the first step in the criminal court process is called the arraignment. Usually, this is the first time the defendant appears in court and is informed of the charges as well as offered legal representation if the defendant cannot afford to hire a private attorney.  The defendant then enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. Most often, this is the time when the defendant has his or her first contact with the Public Defender’s Office.

The attorney who is handling the arraignment will briefly discuss the case with the defendant. Ordinarily, the Deputy Public Defender will enter a plea of “not guilty.” On behalf of the client. If a case is particularly complex or unusable, a plea might not be entered at the first appearance, but might be entered at a later date in order to allow the attorney time to gather more information about the charges.  If a “not guilty” plea is entered at this first appearance, the case will then be scheduled for a “preliminary hearing” which is usually set no later than 10 court days after the arraignment, unless time is “waived,” which means the defendant gives up his or her right to have the preliminary hearing within ten days.  This will often provide the Public Defender with additional time to prepare for the hearing.

The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for a judge to decide whether there is sufficient cause for the judge to believe that you committed one or more of the charged crimes. This hearing will be held before the judge not a jury. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to weed out charges unsupported by evidence.  The prosecutor calls witnesses and puts on evidence at the preliminary hearing.

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; weekends and holidays are excluded. If you are out of custody you are entitled to a preliminary hearing within 60 calendar days.

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 they believe a waiver would be helpful in your case and the reason for it. You then decide if you want to waive your right to a speedy preliminary hearing.

At the hearing, your attorney will question the witnesses.  Your attorney might 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.