Charged with a Felony Criminal Case in Vista? The Process Explained

Posted By Bill Nimmo & Raymond Gomez, Attorneys at Law || 12-Jun-2014

The San Diego North County has a population of nearly 1,000,000 people. The Court system that services all of North County is the Superior Court in Vista. They handle cases from south Rancho Bernardo or to Del Mar and all points north to the Riverside and Orange County border.

If you have been arrested or charged with a case in Vista, you will have investigated or handled by any number of law enforcement agencies. Depending on where the incident or the arrest was located you could be processed by The San Diego Police Department, Escondido Police Department, Oceanside Police Department, Carlsbad Police Department, or by the San Diego Sheriff's Department, and sometimes the California Highway Patrol. The Sheriff's Department contracts out with different cities so sometimes they will be referred to as the Vista Sheriffs or the San Marcos Sheriffs for the city in which they are operating.

But all criminal cases are handled out of Vista and they are prosecuted, whether misdemeanor or felony, by the District Attorney's office in Vista. The Vista judicial system is large and is second only to Downtown San Diego. Rarely are downtown deputies brought in to handle the Vista cases and they handle everything from small misdemeanors to death penalty murders. It is not quite a local as you might think, however, because the judges rotate throughout the county and so do the deputy district attorneys. Many, however, who have developed lives in the north county have extended assignments and spend nearly their whole careers in Vista.

Your case will be first assigned to a detective from the arresting or investigating agency. That detective will do what they believe is the necessary follow up investigation, usually involving interviewing witnesses to the incident. Once they are finished they forward the case over to the ISSUING department of the District Attorney's Office. Some cases are "issued" by special units but the majority of the cases are reviewed, and either rejected or charged by an issuing deputy. If you case is serious enough or is of a special variety (a rape case for instance) it will be assigned to a particular deputy who will handle it all the way through to the end. This is called a "vertical" assignment. Most cases are not handled vertically and a number of different deputies handle the case at different points in the system.

How fast a case is issue depends upon the custody status of the defendant and the seriousness of the case. If a person is in custody the district attorney's office must either file a case or release you pending further investigation in 72 hours. I you are out of custody and the case doesn't have imminent emergency issues, it will likely go further down in the file and you will be charged, or not, after a reasonable period of time ranging from days to a few weeks.

First Court Date: The Arraignment

In the Vista Courthouse a felony case goes first to Department 14 for arraignment, analysis of initial bail conditions, and the setting of further dates. This is called the arraignment. At the arraignment you state your true name, understand the charges in the complaint which will be presented to you, and you enter pleas of NOT GUILTY and you DENY any enhancements and allegations. You and your attorney set dates for a readiness

(settlement conference) conference and for a preliminary hearing. The preliminary hearing is a date where witnesses are called to demonstrate to the court, by the prosecution, that sufficient evidence exists to bind you over for setting a jury trial and other further proceedings. If you don't waive time the case will be time compressed as you have the right to have a preliminary hearing within 10 days of the arraignment. Rarely is this in your benefit.

Now you are entitled to get the "discovery," which are the police reports and whatever evidence they have against you at this time. It takes a few days to get this discovery. If you have an attorney the discovery is produced electronically except for the disks of audio and video. Those your attorney will have to pick up on the 5 th floor of the new courthouse when notified that they are ready.

The First Readiness Conference: Department 6

Typically, with waiving time, your readiness conference will be set out a few weeks to give you and your attorney the opportunity to get the discovery and conduct an analysis of your situation. This time should be spent strategizing what your goals are and what is or is not realistic under the facts of the case and the circumstances of the person charged.

The readiness conference is set in Dept 6 in the old part of the Vista Courthouse. You should arrive at 0830. Unfortunately you will be sitting in the hallway a long time while your attorney waits in line to talk to the judge and the the deputy district attorney(DDA.) Your attorney might also have other cases and will be working those in together. If you are in custody your attorney will come back to the "tank" and let you know what is going on with your case.

This is where you will attempt to settle your case or find out what offer the DDA intends to make to you in an effort to get the case settled. Some cases aren't meant or ready to settle on this day and then this readiness conference is used as a status or maybe a time to make an agreement on the DDA gathering more information or discovery. Don't be anxious or impatient about getting your case settled. If you have a competent attorney, they will know whether to negotiate on that date or move the case further along to get more information. You and your attorney should have a set strategy in advance so you can make the correct "chess move" on that day.

You could have several "first readiness conferences" and your attorney will continue them until he is ready to settle or declare that the case is ready to go to preliminary hearing.

The Preliminary Hearing

This is where the DDA will call witnesses to prove to a court that there is enough evidence to "bind" you over and go further in the process. You will go to Dept 5, the criminal presiding department, to be sent out to another court to actually have the preliminary hearing heard. You could go anywhere in the old courthouse or over to another floor in the new courthouse. You should plan on a long day. Sometimes there will be several cases sent to the same courtroom and you may have to wait behind other cases.

How to use a preliminary hearing to your tactical advantage will not be covered in this writing. Good attorneys use the prelim for a number of different reason but they are complex and would be the subject of an entire article.

Assuming you get bound over and are "held" to answer, you will either be "arraigned" right there of be another 2 nd arraignment date to come back for trial and 2 nd readiness conference setting. Whether you should agree to being arraigned right at the preliminary hearing or not is a matter of tactic to discuss with your attorney. Just understand that getting arraigned right there at the end of the preliminary hearing speeds up the process. Again these are tactical decisions and should be something you discuss thoroughly with your attorney.

The "Second" Readiness Conference: Dept 5

Once you have gone through a preliminary hearing you are scheduled next for a readiness conference in Deparment 5. This is the criminal presiding department and this second readiness is a place where the system tries to settle cases or make sure they are ready for trial. Your deal may get better or worse depending on the facts and the type of case you have. Like the "First" Readiness Conference in Dept 6 before the prelim, this Dept 5 Readiness Conference could get continued a couple of times for various reasons. Typically they get continued because the defense attorney is working on things to present to the DDA or the court that will help the defendant. The defense attorney may be getting records or a psych evaluation or some other evidence to assist. Once you decline any offer in Dept 5, your case is heading for trial.

Trial Call: Dept 5

When you are assigned for trial it is also in Dept 5. Unless you have filed a motion to continue the case and have good reason to continue the case, the judge in Dept 5 will send you out to a courtroom to start picking a jury. This is an important date and should not be played as a game. If you wait until the trial date to try to settle the case you might get the shock of your life. This is where you really need to very serious and depend upon the advice of a competent lawyer that you trust. Trials are expensive (lawyer fees are high), the outcomes are risky, and the consequences can be severe.


This has been a general guide to the process of felony case handling in Vista. We want to stress you really need a good defense lawyer to deal with the process in each of these stages. Your personal knowledge of the system, unless you are legally trained cannot possibly give you enough skill to negotiate through this maze yourself.

Categories: Criminal Defense