As a victim of -- or a witness to -- a crime, you are vital to the criminal justice process. Without you, the system cannot work.
The Victim Witness Assistance Center can help you understand how the system works and keep you informed about your case. To do this, however, we must have your current address and phone number and a way to reach you if you are going to be out of town.
This web page is a guide to the process and to the terms you may encounter as your case moves through the system.
The Subpoena - Don't Ignore It
A subpoena is a court order requiring you to be present at the time and place stated. You will receive your subpoena in person or by mail.
Court hearings do not always take place at the precise time scheduled. Calendar conflicts, the unavailability of a witness, or a legal motion may cause your case to be delayed ("continued").
Your subpoena will show the type of hearing at which you are to appear. If you fail to appear, the judge may issue a warrant for your arrest and impose a fine and/or a jail sentence. Be sure to bring your subpoena with you to court.
If the Case is Postponed...
Sometimes a case will be postponed or "continued." If a continuance is ordered before you appear in court, we will make every effort to let you know that you need not appear on the date listed on the subpoena.
If a continuance is sought on the date you are scheduled to appear, we may not be able to let you know in time. Even if a continuance does occur, your original subpoena is still in effect and you will be contacted with the new date and time for your appearance. We encourage you to call the Center and confirm the time you should be in court before you go to the courthouse.
The Court System
Two types of courts handle criminal matters: trial court handles the less serious cases (misdemeanors); trial court handles the more serious cases (felonies); and juvenile court hears proceedings when the accused is under the age of 18.
In misdemeanor cases there is no preliminary hearing, so your first court appearance will be for the actual trial. Your testimony will be required only once. (In many cases a trial is not conducted because the defendant pleads guilty.)
The Preliminary Hearing
In felony cases, your first appearance will be at the preliminary hearing. This is not a trial -- but it is a hearing at which the judge determines if there is sufficient evidence to require the defendant to stand trial in superior court. Normally just enough evidence is presented to "hold the defendant to answer." No jurors will be present, since the judge alone decides if there will be a trial.
Arraignment - Superior Court
After the defendant is "held to answer," he/she will be arraigned again in superior court. You do not have to appear at the arraignment.
California law requires that a defendant charged with a felony be brought to trial within 60 days of the filing of the Information in Superior Court, unless that right is waived by the accused. Thus, in some cases, this time could extend to several months.
Witnesses must testify at the trial, even if they were thoroughly questioned at the preliminary hearing. In some cases, a trial will not be held because the defendant pleads guilty. When this happens, you will be notified that your testimony will not be required, and you will be released from your obligation under the subpoena to come to court.
When you appear as a witness, you will be called to the witness stand by a deputy district attorney to testify about what you saw, heard, or did which may be relevant to the charges against the defendant. After the district attorney has asked questions, the defense attorney has the right to test your memory of the facts, or to "cross-examine" you. You may be excluded from the courtroom when other witnesses are testifying. This is to ensure that the testimony or memory of one witness does not influence the testimony of another.
The Defense Attorney
The defense attorney may ask to speak with you to find out the nature of your testimony. There are no laws or rules prohibiting you from telling the defendant's attorney or a representative of the defense what your testimony will be. However, you are not required to do so. This is your decision. But feel free to discuss any of this with the deputy district attorney. If you choose to speak to the defense, you may wish to have another person present or tape record the interview to avoid later misquotations and misunderstandings.
Verdict and Sentencing
The jury will find the defendant either guilty or not guilty of the crime. If the accused is found guilty, a date will be set for sentencing, usually 28 days after the verdict.
At the sentencing, you have the right to appear and make a statement about the effects of the crime on you and your family and about the punishment you feel appropriate for the defendant. This can be done in a written "Victim Impact Statement" or in a verbal statement to the court or probation department.
A victim services advocate may accompany you to court to support you during the sentencing hearing.
The judge may impose one or more of the following sentences: state prison (felony cases only), county jail, probation, fine, or restitution. The judge may order a restitution fine or direct restitution to the victim.