Participants in a Criminal Case

When someone is charged with a criminal violation, many different groups of people become involved. Each has a particular role to play in the determination of the outcome of the case. Anyone facing criminal charges must have a firm understanding of the roles these different groups play.

Defendant This is the person charged with violating a particular state or local criminal code. According to the United States Constitution and subsequent court decisions, defendants have the right of legal representation when facing criminal charges. Moreover, the defendant is presumed to be not guilty unless - through the criminal court process - he/she is determined to be guilty. This presumption of innocence is one of the hallmarks of our legal system. The prosecution has the burden of proving guilt.

Defense AttorneyThe defense attorney is the defendant’s advocate in the legal process, presenting the best possible case to protect the defendant against the state’s accusations. The criminal process is confusing and intimidating. The defense attorney helps the client understand the nature of the charges, the legal terminology used in court, the multiple steps that a criminal case will take, and the consequences of the options that will arise at each step. The state - as represented in each county’s law enforcement personnel - have tremendous resources at their disposal as they seek convictions in criminal matters. The defense attorney is the defendant’s advocate, ensuring that all procedural rules are followed, identifying weaknesses in the accusation, formulating counterarguments, gathering contradictory evidence - in short, doing everything ethically possible to win an acquittal or negotiate an agreement acceptable to the client.

ProsecutorThe prosecuting attorney is a member of each county’s district attorney’s office. These are the people - referred to as deputy district attorneys - attempting to get a conviction in criminal matters. The deputy D.A. is actually not a member the court staff but is an employee of the local county executive department. Though part of a group commonly referred to as “law enforcement,” they are even members of a different government agency than the police or sheriff. Their job is to review the evidence gathered by the police or sheriff or CHP and determine whether criminal charges should be brought against a person and, if so, to then argue the case in court and seek a conviction. In fact, after an arrest, it is possible for the D.A.’s office to decide that the charges are not sufficient to warrant going through with the criminal proceedings. The defense attorney plays a vital role in this process by arguing on her client's behalf and seeking to have charges dismissed.

Police, Sheriff, or CHPThe job of a member of the police or sheriff departments or the California Highway Patrol is to enforce the laws enacted by state and local governments. They are granted the authority to arrest people they believe have violated those laws and gather evidence in support of their belief that a crime has been committed. As noted above, they are part of a separate government office than are the prosecuting attorneys. After a police, sheriff, or CHP officer has made an arrest and finished the investigation, his/her job is to provide that evidence to the local district attorney’s office for review and determination of whether criminal charges should be brought. Police have jurisdiction over cities, sheriffs have jurisdiction over unincorporated county areas (meaning, outside of city boundaries), and CHP have jurisdiction over state highways.

JudgeEach allegation of a criminal violation must be tried in a court before a judge. The guiding principle is that judges - as members of a different branch of government than are the police and prosecutors - should be an impartial referee of the criminal matter, ensuring each defendant is treating fairly and equally under the law. Their courtrooms are supposed to be the places where defendants receive a fair review of the facts of each case in light of relevant law. The judge is in charge of the courtroom, making decisions about whether evidence may be used, what instructions jurors should hear, and whether attorneys are following the right procedures when making motions or conducting a trial. Again, though, the critical role of the defense attorney is to be the advocate for her client and ensure that the defendant is treated fairly and gets the best possible outcome.

The Importance of Quality Legal RepresentationThis brief summary of the major groups involved in a criminal case demonstrates the importance of having quality legal representation if you’ve been arrested. Each local county has the resources of prosecutors, investigators, crime laboratories, and other support agencies to formulate their case and push for conviction. An experienced defense attorney is needed to refute their allegations and protect your interests. Call me at (916) 442-1200 if you have a case you would like to discuss.