Criminal Court 101:  Basic Fundamentals of Criminal Court

If you have been charged with a crime in California for the first time, you probably have a lot of questions.  This article will help you understand the basic rules for the criminal court system.

 

What is the difference between criminal court and civil court?  

 

  • Criminal court – criminal charges are brought by either the federal government, state government, or city against you with the allegation that you have violated a law. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge can impose a sentence that includes fines, jail/prison, or other restrictions or requirements.
  • Civil court – this occurs when one party (for example, a person, business or organization) has a claim against another party and requests the court to decide the question.  A person will not go to jail or prison for a civil case.

 

What types of criminal offenses are there?  

  • Infractions – this is the lower violation in terms of seriousness, and it is something like a traffic violation.  The punishment is usually a fine.
  • Misdemeanors – this is more serious than an infraction. The jail time can be 6 months or a year and the fine can be up to $1000 typically.

 

      • Examples include DUI, petty theft, vandalism

 

  • Felonies – these are the most serious.  Punishments can include fines, jail, prison, or even the death penalty in very rare cases.

 

What is the difference between the state system and the federal system?  

  • Type of crime – there are federal laws and state laws, but in some cases, one crime could qualify as either federal or state.  
  • Procedures – there are different procedures in the federal system vs. the state system, for example in the procedures for charging a defendant and for sentencing
  • Courtroom/judges – the courtroom and judges are different for federal vs. state

 

Do I need an attorney?

  • You have a right to represent yourself, so you are not required to have an attorney.
  • An attorney is trained in the rules and procedures of the court, and typically that information will be advantageous to your case.
  • Conventional wisdom is that there are advantages to having someone represent you besides just the knowledge.  Most attorneys, if they are charged with a serious offense, will even hire someone to represent them.  A person who is outside the situation is often less emotionally invested and has the impartiality to see angles and arguments that someone who is under the stress of the case may not be able to discern as easily.