Rights of the Accused in California Criminal Cases

Under the American justice system, individuals who have been accused of a crime have the benefit of certain statutory and constitutional rights designed to protect their legal interests. Although these rights apply to all criminal prosecutions, they are sometimes limited by the type of crime the accused has been charged with.

When charged with a crime it is easy to get overwhelmed and feel like the outcome is predetermined. It is crucial to understand that all criminal defendants have various rights to ensure fairness.

Criminal offenses in California fall into two widely recognized categories: Misdemeanors and Felonies. The California Penal Code determines the type and level of all offenses. Regardless of which type of crime the accused is charged with, California recognizes certain rights to which they are entitled. The following is a brief overview of those rights.

Right To a Speedy Trial
Both the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article One Section 15 of the California Constitution guarantee that every individual is entitled to a trial by jury within a certain period of time after their arrest. This “speedy trial right” has been codified in California Penal Code Section 1382. The length of that period is determined by the type of crime with which the accused is charged and whether or not they are held in custody pending trial.

The chart below shows how long after a person’s arrest the State has to bring them to trial on the charges.

Misdemeanor – In Custody 30 Days
Misdemeanor – Not In Custody 45 Days
Any Felony 60 Days
The accused can agree to “waive time,” allowing their trial to be set outside of the statutory time period. If an individual waives their speedy trial rights, a date is set for trial and the individual has a right to have their trial on or within ten days of the set date.

Right To A Jury Trial
Sixth Amendment and California Constitution Article 1, sections 16 and 24, also provide that every individual facing criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor or felony is entitled to a trial by a jury of his or her peers. California Constitution Article 1, section 16 states “In criminal actions in which a felony is charged, the jury shall consist of 12 persons. In criminal actions in which a misdemeanor is charged, the jury shall consist of 12 persons or a lesser number agreed on by the parties in open court.”

The right to a trial by jury in California extends only to misdemeanor and felony charges, not traffic infractions. California Penal Code 19.6 states, “An infraction is not punishable by imprisonment. A person charged with an infraction shall not be entitled to a trial by jury.”
Right to Legal Counsel
Likely the most important of any rights a defendant can take advantage of, the right to legal counsel is guaranteed to all individuals accused of a punishable by imprisonment. Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, the United States Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel “meant at least that a person is entitled to the help of a lawyer at or after the time that judicial proceedings have been initiated against him, whether by formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment.”

Brewer goes on to state that once adversary proceedings have begun against a defendant, he has a right to legal representation when the government interrogates him. Many people think that, because they Sixth Amendment guarantees them the right to counsel, the government is required to provide them with an attorney free of charge, however, this is only true when the accused faces a “loss of liberty,” jail or prison time.


Orange County criminal defense attorney Lauren K. Johnson has extensive experience protecting the constitutional and statutory rights of the accused. If you have questions regarding California’s criminal law or your rights, contact attorney Lauren K. Johnson today.