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Your San Diego Criminal Case: The Basics

Your husband's company was having a mid-week morale boosting excursion to SeaWorld and you were glad he was getting an opportunity to blow off some steam since he and his team had been working so hard lately. You expected he might get sunburned or eat too much kettle corn, but you never dreamed you would be getting a call saying that he had been arrested. What do you do? What can you expect? Here is some basic information to help you understand the basics of your San Diego criminal case. 

For a general overview of criminal law, you can also check out FindLaw's Criminal Law section.

Key Players

Typically the first folks encountered in a criminal case in San Diego are officers from the San Diego Police Department. The case will likely be heard at the San Diego Superior Court and may be prosecuted by the San Diego County District Attorney or the San Diego City Attorney. Those who cannot afford a defense attorney may be able to obtain representation through the San Diego County Public Defender. Time may be spent in the San Diego Central Jail, one of the other detention facilities.

Classifications of Crimes

Criminal offenses are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies depending on the seriousness of the crime and the associated penalties. Infractions are the least serious (e.g. vehicle moving violations) and are not punishable by imprisonment. Misdemeanors (e.g. drunk driving, petty theft) are typically punishable by fines and/or county jail terms of up to one year. Felonies (e.g. murder, robbery) are the most serious crimes and are typically punishable by incarceration in state prison for more than 1 year or death.

In San Diego, how a crime is classified impacts which agency prosecutes it. Misdemeanors and infractions are generally handled by the San Diego City Attorney, while the San Diego County District Attorney's Office typically handles felonies.

Booking and Bail

After arrest, the next step is generally the booking process. This is when information about the accused and the charges against him are entered into the system, photographs and fingerprints are taken, a physical search and examination is conducted, bail is calculated, and a court date is set. In San Diego, men are booked at either the San Diego Central Jail or the Vista Detention Facility, whereas women are booked at either the Las Colinas Detention Facility or the Vista Detention Facility.

Some folks are then released on their own recognizance, whereas others will need to arrange for bail (a promise to return to court made by money) through their friends, family, or bail agents.

The San Diego Sheriff's Department has additional information on the booking process, as well as what happens when bail is not made.

Court Hearings and Process

Generally, the first court appearance will be the arraignment. This is the hearing when the charges are officially read against the defendant, an attorney is appointed if necessary, future court dates are set, and the issue of bail may be revisited.

As the San Diego Public Defender explains, in the case of a misdemeanor charge, the arraignment is also the time when the defendant is asked to enter his plea (guilty, not guilty, no contest). If a "not guilty" plea is offered, you can formally request a jury trial, which should be set within 30 to 45 days. If a guilty or no contest plea is offered, you will likely be sentenced immediately.

In the case of a felony charge, as the San Diego Public Defender outlines, at the arraignment the judge will likely set a future Felony Disposition Conference ("FDC") and a Pre-Trial Conference. At the FDC the prosecutor will usually make an offer to settle your case.

If you do not accept the offer, you will proceed to a Pre-Trial Conference at which time the judge will determine 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)." If the judge determines there is not sufficient cause to believe you committed the crime, then the case will be dismissed. If the judge determines that you could have committed the crime, you will proceed to trial.

It is likely that there will be further conferences prior to trial and further opportunities to resolve by plea bargain, although the offer made at the FDC is often the best offer the prosecutor will make. This whole process will generally take approximately 60 to 90 days.

Get Legal Help with Your Case in San Diego

Being charged with a crime is an emotional experience and the consequences of a conviction can be significant. For this reason, it's a good idea to hire a skilled criminal defense attorney in California who can explain the charges to you, make a recommendation on how to proceed, and appear in court with you.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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