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About Los Angeles Criminal Law Center

Los Angeles Criminal Law Center is sponsored by The Rodriguez Law Group, a criminal defense firm serving Los Angeles, CA and the surrounding areas. The Rodriguez Law Group was founded by Ambrosio E. Rodriguez, a former prosecutor with over 18 years experience. During his time as a prosecutor, Mr. Rodriguez handled serious criminal matters including sex crimes and death penalty cases. The information on this site is intended to assist anyone going through the criminal justice process.

Understanding California’s Self Defense Laws

No one wants to be the victim of a violent crime. For that reason, California law recognizes the need to protect yourself and others from harm. This right is known as self-defense. It can be used as a legal defense to actions that would otherwise be considered criminal, including assault, battery, and even murder.

If self-defense is properly used, it could clear you of any wrongdoing. However, note that there are several key elements that must be proved in order for this defense to be successful.

Self-Defense and Defense of Others Overview

Now, for self-defense to apply, you must have believed that you were in imminent danger of physical harm. This means that your immediate use of force must have been necessary for the situation. Further, you are not allowed to use any more force than is necessary to protect yourself. For example, if someone goes to punch you, it wouldn’t be reasonable to pull a gun on them.

Note that the law only allows you to use deadly force when there is a threat of deadly force. However, there is no duty to retreat in California. In other words, if someone threatens you with deadly force you may stand your ground and defend yourself. This is true even if you have the opportunity to run away.

Defense of Property and Others

Under state law, you also have the right to defend other people. So long as the person you were defending was justified in using force, you may use the same amount of force in protecting them. In addition, self-defense also applies to property. This includes personal property, such as your wallet, as well as real property, like your house.

Remember, in all situations involving self-defense, the fundamental question is whether the force used was reasonable. So, in terms of protecting property, you would need to ask yourself whether someone else in your situation would have believed that the amount of force you used in the situation was necessary to defend your belongings.

Self-Defense for the Initial Aggressor

It’s important to note that even individuals that initiate the use of force can still claim self-defense in certain situations. For example, let’s assume that you started a fight and then made it clear to the other person that you wanted to stop. If they had an opportunity to stop but continued to attack you, you would be justified in using a reasonable amount of force to protect yourself. 

But, remember, if the force you use goes beyond merely protecting yourself, you would be considered the aggressor again and would not be able to claim self-defense. Because these cases can be complicated, it can be helpful to reach out to a qualified attorney that can evaluate the specific facts of your case and advise you on how to proceed.  

Reasonableness of Belief that Force was Necessary

As discussed, issues of self-defense often turn on the reasonableness of your actions in light of the circumstances. This means that it’s not important if your use of force was actually necessary to protect yourself.

Now, this standard can seem vague and confusing. But, state law does provide some guidance to help determine what is considered reasonable behavior under the circumstances. Specifically, the law looks at things like:

  •  The relationship between you and the other person,

  • The words spoken to you, and

  • The body language of the aggressor.

For instance, take a situation where someone you didn’t know pointed an unloaded gun at you and began to make angry threats. Now, in this situation, you had no reason to believe the gun was unloaded. In this case, it would be reasonable for you to shoot the person to protect yourself, even though there was no actual threat.

Imperfect Self-Defense and Voluntary Manslaughter 

In cases where your use of deadly force was not reasonable under the circumstances, you may still have a legal defense available to you. This is referred to as “imperfect self-defense,” and it could result in your offense being downgraded from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Imperfect self-defense might apply, for example, if you were involved in a fight started by another person where you used more force than necessary and ended up killing them in the process.

Note that this defense will not completely exonerate you of the charges. However, voluntary manslaughter carries less severe penalties than murder. Specifically, if you are convicted of this crime, you could face 3 to 11 years behind bars, compared to 15 to 25 years for murder.

Do You Need A Lawyer At An Arraignment In California?

Being arrested can leave you feeling like you have nowhere to turn. The surroundings may be unfamiliar and you may find the legal process confusing. But, it may provide some solace to know that criminal matters in California generally follow a common set of procedures. One of these is the arraignment, which is an opportunity for you to hear and respond to the charges brought against you.

Following an arrest, the first step of any criminal case is the filing of charges by the prosecution and the arraignment hearing. Next, there is a process called discovery and then preliminary hearings, followed by the trial and court verdict. If a defendant is found guilty, he or she has the option to appeal that decision to a higher court (known as an appeals court).

During an arraignment, you have the right to have an attorney present. This means that you can waive that right and choose not to be represented. However, this isn’t recommended. Because this is your first time in front of the court and you will be responding to charges, an attorney can be very helpful in navigating this process on your behalf.

The Arraignment

An arraignment is the defendant’s first court appearance in a criminal case. If the defendant is taken into custody and housed in a jail, the arraignment must be scheduled within 48 hours following the arrest (not including holidays and weekends). If the defendant is not held in jail, the arraignment is not scheduled for 10 days or more. During this period, the defendant has the opportunity to seek legal counsel.

During the arraignment, the defendant is notified of the pending criminal charges. The defendant is also made aware of his or her constitutional rights and informed that an attorney will be appointed if the defendant cannot afford one. The defendant then responds to the charges before the court and enters what is referred to as a plea.

Plea Options

A plea in a criminal matter is very important and dictates how the case proceeds. There are three types of pleas each with very different ramifications: not guilty, guilty, and no contest.

With a not guilty plea, the defendant claims to have not committed the crime in question. In this case, it is up to the prosecution to prove its case that the defendant did commit the crime. Because a defendant is presumed innocent in a criminal case, the standard of proof is high. In fact, the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. This means that, based on the evidence, there is no other logical conclusion than the defendant committed the crime. 

By contrast, a guilty plea means that the defendant admits to committing the alleged crime. In this case, there is no trial by the prosecution and the judge enters a conviction. The matter then proceeds to sentencing.

A plea of no contest is a bit more complicated. Here, the defendant does not dispute the charge but does not admit guilt either. While this plea has the same effect as a guilty plea in a criminal case, the defendant’s guilt cannot be used as evidence of wrongdoing in any subsequent civil suit. 

Because of the importance of selecting the appropriate plea during the arraignment, an attorney can be very helpful in determining which plea is the most advantageous given your unique circumstances.    

If the Defendant is in Custody

There are a few things to consider when a defendant is held in jail at the time of arraignment. After the plea is made the court has a few options to consider. One option is to release the defendant without bail, also known as of his or her “own recognizance.” This determination is made based on the defendant’s promise to show up for the next court date.

The court may also choose to send the defendant back to jail until bail can be posted. The amount of the bail is set by the court and is up to the discretion of the judge given the circumstances of the case.

Finally, the court has the option to refuse to set bail. In this situation, the defendant remains in custody until the next court date. Some reasons the court may not release a defendant out on bail is if there is a possibility that the defendant may not return to court, or if there is a danger that witnesses may be interfered with or other crimes may be committed while on release.

What Is The Three Strikes Law?

In baseball, “three strikes and you’re out” is a common phrase. It lets players know that that the third strike is their last chance to hit the ball. Players who fail to get a hit on their third try are sent back to the dugout and, in some cases, this means game over.

The Three Strikes Law has a similar but much grimmer meaning for habitual felons in California. 

Essentially, the Three Strikes Law is a set of sentencing guidelines for felony convictions. Its purpose is to deter individuals with prior serious felonies from committing any further felonies.

The original law achieved this by having severe penalties for the third felony, with a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

The law wasn’t without its critics. They argued that the law was too severe. Particularly, that non-violent felonies shouldn’t count as a third strike as these crimes don’t warrant the possibility of receiving life in prison without the chance for parole.

Since its enactment in 1994, the law has been relaxed, especially in regard to third-time felons. But, the sentencing guidelines are still strict.

History Of The Three Strikes Law

The original Three Strikes Law gave harsh sentencing guidelines to habitual felony offenders. The first serious felony conviction was the first strike on their record. On the first strike, the individual was sentenced normally. 

The Three Strikes Law starts making changes to regular sentencing guidelines at the second felony. If the felon was convicted of a serious felony for the second time, the amount of time they spent in jail was doubled. This was the second strike on their record.

After the second conviction for a serious felony (the second strike) a subsequent conviction for any felony–whether serious or not–was the third strike on their record. This meant that even non-violent felonies counted as a third strike. Under the Three Strikes Law sentencing guidelines, the mandatory penalty for the third felony was 25 years to life in prison without parole.

In 2012, Proposition 36 was passed. It made two substantial changes to the Three Strikes Law sentencing guidelines:

  1. If a third-time felon was currently serving 25 years-to-life as a mandatory sentence under the old law, the new law allows them to petition the court to be re-sentenced under the new second-strike guidelines if they are eligible; and
  2. Instead of any felony counting as a third strike, now the third strike sentencing would only be triggered if that felony was a serious felony.

Proposition 36 was a substantial step towards relaxing the Three Strikes Law sentencing guidelines. However, California law still gives harsh penalties to habitual felons and further changes are currently being considered. 

What Is The Difference Between A Felony And A Serious Felony?

The Three Strikes Law makes an important distinction between a felony and a serious felony. In California, a felony is broadly defined as any crime that carries a sentence of more than one year in jail or prison. This includes non-violent offenses, like drug charges.

A serious felony, on the other hand, has a much narrower definition. The term serious felony is reserved for the gravest crimes. Examples of a serious felony include:

  • Murder
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Continuous sexual abuse of a child
  • Burglary
  • Carjacking
  • Any robbery

By distinguishing between a felony and a serious felony, Proposition 36 prevents individuals committed of two prior serious felonies from automatically serving 25 years to life in prison for a subsequent non-violent felony, such as the sale of a controlled substance.

How Can A Criminal Defense Attorney Help Me?

Although the Three Strikes Law has been revised, any felony conviction in California can have serious long-term consequences, including incarceration and monetary fines.

If you have a felony criminal record and are facing new charges, or if this is your first possible conviction, it’s important to seek legal help as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help protect you from the Three Strikes Law, including negotiating plea bargains