Stages in a California Criminal Case: Sentencing

June 02, 2021 by Seppi Esfandi in California  Criminal Defense  
Thumbnail for: Stages in a California Criminal Case: Sentencing

Stage 6: Sentencing

Sentencing in General

The Sentencing Hearing is, essentially, the last phase in a criminal proceeding. Once a criminal defendant is either found guilty by a jury or pleads guilty, he or she will then face a Sentencing Hearing. It is at the Sentencing Hearing that the judge will “sentence” the defendant with jail time, prison, probation, time served, or a combination thereof.

The sentencing hearing is a crucial part of the criminal process. Therefore, the defendant is guaranteed certain constitutional rights, such as the right to be represented by a lawyer, the right to present evidence, the right to be present at the Sentencing Hearing, and the right to offer alternative sentencing.

There are also important differences between sentencing and more formal proceedings like a trial. For instance, unlike in a criminal trial, during a Sentencing Hearing, a defendant does not have a right to cross examine victims, who often appear for the prosecution at sentencing to give “victim impact” statements. Similarly, the rules of evidence are much more relaxed and informal at a Sentencing Hearing than at trial. For instance, a character witness can read hearsay, or double hearsay, into the record and make unsubstantiated statements. These relatively informal statements would not be allowed in a trial, where the rules of evidence are more exacting.

Misdemeanor v. Felony

In misdemeanor cases, the sentence is limited to a maximum of one year in County Jail per count charged (not per case) and cannot include time in a State Prison. Also, due to the passage of AB 1950, probation in most misdemeanors is limited to one year.

Felony case sentences involve prison time and there are usually three options: a low-term, a mid-term, and a high-term. The Court will consider aggravating and mitigating factors in determining which term is appropriate. So, for instance, for the crime of PC 487 — Grand Theft, the judge can sentence the defendant to the low-term of 16 months in prison, the mid-term of two years, or the high term of three years. The judge’s analysis will include things like the specific facts of the charged offense presented during trial and the defendant’s criminal history or lack thereof. In a felony conviction, the judge can also grant probation instead of prison time. AB 1950 limits most felony probation terms to two years.

Prison v. Probation

As mentioned above, felony cases involve prison time. However, instead of a prison term, a deal can be worked out for a grant of felony probation. A grant of probation means that instead of prison, a judge grants a probationary term for the defendant to comply with certain terms in order to avoid prison. This includes assigning the defendant a probation officer and the defendant performing various conditions imposed by the judge. These conditions can include attending classes, paying fines, reporting monthly into the probation department, doing forced labor, and even doing local time in the county jail. If the defendant fails to meet the conditions of probation, as specified by the judge, the judge can then, with only a Probation Violation Hearing and without the benefit of a trial, sentence the defendant to prison time. The judge has the sole authority to determine if the defendant violated probation.

Sentencing Insights

There are two important distinctions that can help one grasp sentencing dynamics. The first is the difference between sentencing in federal cases versus sentencing in State of California plea-bargained cases. The second is the distinction in State of California cases between those who are found guilty by plea and those who are found guilty by a jury verdict.

State v. Federal

A high percentage of State criminal cases, 97% or more, are settled through plea bargain. The defendant pleads guilty and a sentence, negotiated beforehand between the defense attorney and prosecutor, is part of that plea bargain. For instance, the deal could be to plead guilty to PC 487- Grand Theft and receive 16 months in prison. The judge must still approve the deal, but most of the time this is not a problem. Nevertheless, if an especially strict judge thinks the sentence is too low, then he or she can reject the plea bargain. In such a case, the defendant can withdraw his or her guilty plea since the condition is “bundled up” with the guilty plea. So, if the judge rejects the plea, the defendant would not be bound to it.

Not so in federal cases. In federal cases, the defendant’s plea and the sentence are not “bundled” in the same way as in a State of California case. The judge has much more power because the sentence is not part of the plea bargain. In other words, in a federal case, the defendant will simply plead guilty to a charge, not knowing exactly what sentence the judge will impose. Rather, the judge will determine, several weeks or months later, how much time to give the defendant. The attorneys will usually try to convince the judge to give more or less time to the defendant. No one really knows how much time the judge will give. Although the federal sentencing guidelines provide some guidance, the judge is free to give any sentence he or she sees fit with the law. If the defendant does not like the federal judge’s sentence, there is nothing the defendant can do. He or she is bound to it and must serve the time. So, there is significantly more jeopardy in the sentencing of a federal case than in a State of California plea- bargained case, where the sentence is negotiated and part of the bargain.

Verdicts vs. Plea

A similar dynamic as that described above between State and Federal Sentencing pertains to State of California cases in which a guilty verdict is rendered by a jury, as opposed to those in which a defendant pleads guilty. In the latter case, the defendant knows exactly what his sentence will be because he “bargained” for it through an attorney-negotiated plea bargain process.

However, once a jury returns a guilty verdict, the judge’s role becomes much more prominent; he or she has the authority to choose between a wide variety of sentences, including up to the maximum allowed by law. In a State of California case, the judge’s power after a jury verdict becomes comparable to that of a Federal Judge in a plea-bargained federal case. This is one of the big risks in going to trial; if the verdict doesn’t go your way, the judge has the hatchet and can use it!

Concurrent v. Consecutive

If the defendant in a jury trial is convicted on more than one count, then he or she can potentially be sentenced on both counts. If that is the case, the judge must determine if the sentences will run concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (back-to-back). Obviously, the defendant’s attorney should be arguing for a concurrent sentence, in which the sentence terms on the counts will not be added together as they would be in a consecutive sentence.

A Good Lawyer Can Help

If you are facing a sentencing hearing, a good lawyer can help humanize you, and present mitigating evidence before the Judge. This can include factors such as:

  1. You are a father/mother or wife/husband and have people who love you relying on you.
  2. You are a person of good character who acted against your better judgment.
  3. You have done good for the community at large or participated in a significant way
  4. You have faced enormous disadvantages in life that the Judge should consider.
  5. You suffer from a substance addiction that altered your normal behavior.

These are just some examples. A capable and committed attorney can help discover other reasons the judge should be encouraged to show mercy.

Esfandi Law Group

Need a Criminal Defense Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529

Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Criminal Defense Attorney who has over 20 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.

What if I Refuse to Testify in a Domestic Violence Case? Read our Client Reviews

Contact Us:         
Esfandi Law Group QR Code
Esfandi Law Group
Lara S.
December 3, 2019
Seppi had my case reduced to just an infraction, and thanks to him I was able to keep my job. Jorge was extremely helpful too, the reason I went with this law firm. Overall pleased.

How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

Get a Free Consultation

    Free Consultation Form