Guide to criminal court in California
Defendants should have a lawyer
In any criminal case where someone could face jail time, the defendant has a right to a lawyer even if they can't afford one.
The traffic court section covers traffic tickets and other infractions. This section only covers what happens when someone is charged with a misdemeanor or felony, which are more serious types of crimes.
When someone is charged with a crime, their case is handled in criminal court
Only the government — not another person or private agency — can file criminal charges against someone. Generally, the District Attorney’s Office represents the state and files the charges. They are called the prosecution.
The person accused of the crime is called the defendant. In criminal court, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are 3 types of criminal charges, infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies
Infractions: Infractions are the least serious type of crime. Infractions, like speeding tickets, are usually handled in traffic court. Someone convicted only of an infraction cannot be punished with jail time. Typically, the punishment is a fine. A person charged with an infraction does not have a right to a court-appointed lawyer or a jury trial.
Misdemeanors: Someone convicted of a misdemeanor could face time in county jail, from up to 6 months to a year depending on the crime. There could be other penalties with, or instead of, time in jail. For example, probation or a fine.
Felonies: Someone convicted of a felony could be sentenced to time in state prison, including life in prison. There could be other penalties with, or instead of, time in jail or prison. For example, probation or a fine.
Anyone charged with a misdemeanor or felony has a right to a court-appointed lawyer if they can't afford one. They also have a right to a jury trial.