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Understanding the Criminal Charging Process

Jackson Law demystifies the process by which individuals are charged with criminal offenses.

When law enforcement makes an arrest, they compile an arrest report that is then forwarded to a prosecutor. The prosecutor’s role is to initiate legal proceedings and carry out prosecutions for criminal cases. Arrest reports provide a detailed account of the incident, including specifics such as date, time, and location, as well as the environmental conditions at the time of the crime, and, if available, witness information. The prosecutor then has several courses of action:

  • They may determine to file formal charges (either as a felony or misdemeanor) and submit a legal complaint to the court.
  • They may opt to present the case to a grand jury made up of citizens to ascertain what charges, if warranted, to advance.
  • Alternatively, the prosecutor may decide not to proceed with charges.

Prosecutors hold the discretion to file charges that align with or differ from the offenses for which the police arrested the individual. Charges can be adjusted to be either more or less severe, based on the prosecutor’s judgment.

Timeliness of Charge Filing

There are legal mandates for how quickly charges must be filed, particularly if the accused is in detention. Generally, charges should be lodged within 72 hours following an arrest to comply with speedy trial regulations. In certain localities, like California, this timeframe is even more truncated, requiring charges within 48 hours. Nonetheless, these initial charges can be modified after a preliminary hearing, which could occur several weeks post-arrest.

Factors Influencing a Prosecutor’s Charging Decision

A prosecutor’s decision can be swayed by several elements beyond the immediate details of the case. Some prosecution offices have specific policies for certain criminal offenses shaped by community sentiments, potentially guiding prosecutorial decisions. Offices may pursue certain offenses to trial resolutely and decline to negotiate plea agreements of lesser charges.

Prosecutors, who are often elected and may hold political aspirations, can also make charging decisions influenced by public opinion and the support of key community groups. Their decisions to solidify their standing can affect the aggressiveness with which they prosecute certain crimes.

Moreover, a prosecutor may exercise discretion because their mandate is not only to uphold the law but also to seek justice. In some instances, even when the facts support a conviction, prosecutors might choose not to proceed when it serves the greater interest of justice, particularly if the suspect poses a low risk of reoffending.

The Significance of a Grand Jury

For felonies, the decision to file charges can be deferred to a grand jury. Unlike trial juries (or “petit juries”), grand jurors engage in a longer-term commitment, addressing multiple cases during their tenure, which can span from 6 to 18 months. Grand jurors determine if there is sufficient evidence for a trial (indictment process), and they convene privately.

Grand Jury Proceedings Explained

During grand jury sessions, the prosecutor introduces a “bill” (the proposed charges) and provides evidence, oftentimes only as much as considered necessary to secure an indictment. These proceedings are secret, with witnesses frequently testifying without the presence of the suspect or their lawyer. Indicted suspects might later access transcripts, but the evidence presented at this stage is purposely limited.

Grand juries may indict by issuing a “true bill” or may issue a “no-bill” if they decide against it. Still, a “no-bill” does not preclude the prosecutor from pursuing charges, as they may reapproach the same or a different grand jury, or choose to file charges directly.

For felony cases proceeding without a grand jury, defendants are entitled to a preliminary hearing where the state must demonstrate sufficient evidence to justify a trial. Should an indictment occur, this hearing is unnecessary. This can be advantageous for prosecutors who prefer not to disclose extensive evidence pre-trial.

For knowledgeable guidance through what can be a complex and daunting legal system, reach out to Jackson Law at 650-587-8556. Our seasoned team is committed to protecting your rights and ensuring justice is served.

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