Every person charged with a felony offense has the right to be represented by an attorney at all stages of the criminal proceedings. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint an attorney for you. If you can afford an attorney, then the court will not appoint the Public Defender. You will be required to fill out a financial form to determine your eligibility for appointed counsel. At the conclusion of the criminal proceedings you may be required to reimburse the County for the services of the Public Defender or other appointed counsel if you have the financial ability to do so. When the court appoints counsel, the court usually selects the Public Defender.
A felony is any criminal charge that can, upon conviction, result in a state prison commitment. In contrast, a person cannot be sent to prison for a misdemeanor conviction, although the person can be required to spend time in jail. The filing of a "complaint" by the District Attorney’s Office is how a felony case usually begins. The complaint is a paper listing the criminal charges filed against the defendant.
The first court hearing on a felony complaint is the "arraignment." It is at the arraignment that the attorney for the accused is first provided a copy of the complaint. The court decides at that hearing whether to appoint counsel for a person.
The arraignment is the time when you are informed of the charges against you and advised of your statutory and constitutional rights. The arraignment proceeding usually consists of acknowledging receipt of the complaint, waiving formal reading of the complaint by the Judge, and waiving formal advisement of your statutory and constitutional rights. A plea of not guilty is entered and the matter is set for a "preliminary hearing."
There is a statutory right to a preliminary hearing within ten court days from the date of the arraignment. This date can be set out further, but only if you agree to waive, or give up, the statutory time limit. Once set for preliminary hearing, your case will be assigned to an experienced felony trial attorney in the Public Defender’s Office who will be responsible for your case thereafter.
At the preliminary hearing the prosecution must establish that probable cause exists to believe that a crime was committed, and that the person who committed the crime is the one who is charged in the complaint. This is a very low standard and the prosecution usually proves this by calling a minimal number of witness, or just a police officer to testify as to the investigation. In the majority of cases the defense does not present any evidence at the preliminary hearing. If the magistrate finds probable cause, the charged individual is "held to answer." This means that the court has found enough evidence that the defendant should have a trial on the alleged charges.
If you are held to answer, the next hearing is the arraignment on the "Information." The Information is the paper that lists the charges against the defendant for which the magistrate found probable cause. The arraignment on the Information is generally set fifteen days after the preliminary hearing.
At this arraignment on the Information, you have the right to set a trial date within sixty days. Jury trials are set before the presiding judge on Mondays and Thursdays for assignment to whichever trial department is available. You may waive this speedy trial right and set a trial date out more than sixty days from the date of your arraignment.
There are two types of time waivers accepted by the court. The first is a time waiver to a specific date beyond the sixty days. The courts generally require such a time waiver to be accompanied by an additional ten days should no courts be available on the date set. The other is called a general time waiver. This allows the court to continue the trial to any date in the future.
The hearing after the arraignment on the Information is called "trial confirmation." This hearing is set from ten days to two weeks before the trial date and is held on Thursdays in the same courtroom where the arraignment on the Information took place.
Trial confirmation serves two purposes: (1) it ensures that both the prosecution and the defense are prepared to proceed to trial on the date already set, and (2) it ensures that the case cannot settle without a trial. To determine if the case can settle, the Prosecution is required to submit written offers on all cases at the trial confirmation hearing. Your attorney will discuss any offer made to you. It is important to remember that your attorney must discuss with you all offers made by the prosecution, even if it is an offer that is unreasonable or an offer that you are rejecting. This is because a defendant needs to know all available options. Your attorney wants to provide you with full, fair and effective representation; this includes presenting all offers of the prosecution. Your attorney does not want to force you to plead guilty or force you to have a trial. Your attorney only is ensuring that you have all the information necessary so you can decide how to handle your case.
A person in custody can request an "honor release" or, in some cases, a bail reduction, at all hearings including arraignment. The judge will look at several factors to decide whether to grant such a request. For example: age, prior criminal history, ties to the community, length of employment, gravity of the offense, previous failures to appear, a current grant of probation or parole, and any other factors related to the likelihood that the defendant will appear in court as ordered or will present a danger to the community, if released.
Discovery, or information pertaining to physical evidence and statements of witnesses, will be obtained by the attorney and reviewed with the client.
An investigation will be conducted to assess evidence, and to locate and interview witnesses, if necessary. The client should provide to their attorney the complete names, addresses, and phone numbers of all potential witnesses as soon as possible.
An attorney will evaluate your case for any appropriate motions that need to be filed. However, not all cases will have motions to be made, as each client’s case is different.
Fresno is a large and diverse county. There are several cities within Fresno County with branches of the Fresno County Superior Court. These cities are Clovis, Coalinga, Firebaugh, Fowler, Kerman, Kingsburg, Reedley, Sanger, and Selma. The Fresno County Public Defender’s Office staffs these branch courts on a part-time basis. To find out when a Public Defender will be present in a specific court, please call that court. Felony complaints that are initiated in one of these branches are transferred to the courthouse in downtown Fresno if a trial is required.
You must be on time for all of your court dates. In Fresno, parking close to the Courthouse is limited. There are often lines waiting to go through the security scanners at the front entrance to the Fresno County Courthouse. The elevators are slow, and many of the courtrooms are located on the upper floors of the Courthouse. You should plan to be in court early.
If you fail to appear or arrive late enough to court, a bench warrant will be issued for your arrest. To get your case back on calendar, go to the B-1 level of the courthouse. That is one level below the first floor. Go to Room 102. Give them your name and date of birth and ask them to reschedule your court date. However, rescheduling your court date does not recall the bench warrant. The warrant remains active until you personally appear in court and the warrant is recalled by a judge.