Felonies & Misdemeanors
The common distinction between felonies and misdemeanors in state court is the level of punishment: felonies are punishable by state prison or county jail sentences of one year or more, while misdemeanors are punishable by a county jail sentence of less than one year. One of the most important things to understand, however, is not so much the maximum penalties set forth in the Penal Code, but rather the likely sentences for the offenses and the serious potential collateral consequences involving immigration, professional licensing, driving privileges, registration, firearm possession, and child custody.
The procedures for hearing a case vary depending on whether the charge is filed as a misdemeanor or a felony. Misdemeanor matters are handled in the Limited Jurisdiction Division of the Superior Court. In Santa Clara County, misdemeanor cases are heard in Palo Alto (North County), San Jose, and Morgan Hill (South County). In San Mateo County, misdemeanor matters are heard in Redwood City (Southern Branch).
For most misdemeanor cases, except cases involving domestic violence charges, the accused does not have to personally attend court. All appearances can be made by the attorney alone. The first appearance in a misdemeanor case is an arraignment, where the accused or the attorney advises the court if the defendant is represented by counsel and enters a plea, typically a plea of not guilty. The case proceeds to settlement conferences, called pre-trial conferences, where the defense attorney confers with the prosecutor and the judge and attempts to obtain a dismissal or negotiated settlement. There is also an opportunity to file certain motions, such as a motion to suppress evidence based on an illegal search, detention or arrest, and have these motions heard prior to trial. If a misdemeanor charge does not resolve, either by dismissal or negotiated settlement, the case can be decided by a jury trial or a court trial.
In a felony prosecution, the case begins with an arraignment in the Limited Jurisdiction Division of the Superior Court. The accused advises the court if he is represented by counsel and enters a plea, typically a plea of not guilty. Issues regarding bail and release conditions can also be addressed at this time. If the person is in jail, the case can proceed quite quickly, with a preliminary hearing being held within 10 court days. If the person is not in jail and consents to the delay, the case generally proceeds much more slowly. In the weeks and months following a felony arraignment, the defense attorney obtains discovery from the prosecutor and may also conduct an independent investigation. There are opportunities to meet with the prosecutor and a judge to discuss the possibility of a negotiated settlement. If the case does not reach a settlement, a preliminary examination is held. At that hearing, the prosecutor must call witnesses to show there is probable cause that the accused committed the charged offense. The standard of proof is very low at that hearing; prosecutors are permitted to present hearsay evidence, such as a police officer testifying to what a civilian witness said. The preliminary hearing can provide defense counsel with an important opportunity to preview the prosecution’s case.
If the prosecutor presents enough evidence at the preliminary examination, the case is sent, or held over, to Superior Court, General Jurisdiction. At that time, a second arraignment is held and the defendant must then advise the court if he is represented by counsel and enter a plea, typically a plea of not guilty. The case is then set for a jury trial, normally about seven weeks after the arraignment date. Frequently, that date is delayed as both sides prepare for a jury trial. The defendant can file motions to be heard prior to the commencement of trial. If the case is not resolved through a negotiated settlement, the defendant is entitled to have his case decided at a jury trial.