Role of Law Enforcement

After a crime is reported to a law enforcement agency, the officers arriving first on the scene have the duty to learn as much as possible about the crime, the suspect and all potential witnesses. They are also responsible for securing the crime scene to protect evidence.

Being the victim of a sexual assault is an emotionally-upsetting experience; however, it is important that you cooperate fully with law enforcement officers and tell them everything you know. This information may help identify and apprehend the suspect. If you would like assistance and support from a victim service agency (victim/witness, sexual assault, child abuse treatment or domestic violence), ask the officer how to contact these agencies. If such services are available in your area, you may want to call a center to have a victim advocate with you for support during any investigative interviews, medical examinations or follow-up procedures.

After the initial report by the responding officers, the case may be turned over to an investigator for further work. You may be contacted and interviewed again for more information, and you may want to have a victim advocate with you for emotional support during these proceedings. Be sure to write down the name and telephone number of the officer or investigator so that you can call later to ask further questions or obtain more information. If there is enough evidence to arrest a suspect, that person may be arrested at the scene or a warrant for the arrest may be issued later by a judge. The suspect will then be apprehended and the case turned over to the prosecutor. If there is not enough evidence to make an arrest, and additional evidence is not discovered within a reasonable period of time, the case may be closed

Role of the Prosecutor

When the criminal investigation has been completed, the case goes to the prosecutor's office. In criminal complaints at the county level, this will usually be the District Attorney's Office. In some cases, the City Attorney's Office may prosecute the offender. The prosecutor represents the people in criminal cases. People is defined as all members of society, including the victim.

The prosecutor is responsible for reviewing the case to ensure that there is enough evidence to effectively prosecute the suspect. If it is determined that there is sufficient evidence, the prosecutor prepares and files a formal complaint.

If the suspect is older than 18 years old, the case will be heard in adult court. If the suspect is younger than 18, the case usually will be heard in the juvenile court. For some serious offenses, a juvenile may be referred to adult court and tried as an adult. If the prosecutor proceeds with the case, you, as the crime victim, become the complaining witness. You may be called to testify or to attend court proceedings. You do not need to hire a private attorney for the criminal prosecution. The prosecutor represents the people of California in criminal matters. If you desire, victim service program staff may be able to provide support services to you throughout the court process

Defendant's Representatives

You may be contacted by someone working on behalf of the defendant, such as a public defender, private lawyer or private investigator, but you are under no legal obligation to talk to them or anyone else concerning the crime outside of the court. You may tell the defendant's representative that you do not wish to speak with him or her. If you choose to talk to the defendant's representative, it is vital to tell the truth. If you choose to be interviewed by the defendant's attorney or representative, you should also notify the investigating officer or prosecutor before having an interview with the defendant's representative.

Criminal Offenses

There are three types of criminal offenses: infractions, misdemeanors and felonies.

An infraction is a public offense for which an offender can be fined but not sentenced to jail or prison. A traffic ticket for speeding is an example of an infraction.

A misdemeanor is a crime which is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, by a fine, or by both. Shoplifting is an example of a misdemeanor.

A felony is a crime which may be punishable by a state prison sentence, or by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year as a condition of probation. Fines are also possible in felony cases.

Felonies are serious crimes such as rape. If the defendant had a previous serious felony conviction, a new felony may be charged as a second or third strike under the California "Three Strikes" law. Second- and third-strike felonies will have increased penalties if convictions occur. Discuss the charges with the attorney prosecuting the case. This will usually be a deputy district attorney.

Minors under the age of 18 prosecuted in juvenile court may be sent to the California Youth Authority, placed in a county facility, placed in a group or foster home, or placed on probation. Offenders under the age of 21 prosecuted in adult court may be sent to county jail, the California Youth Authority, or to state prison. Commitments to the Youth Authority are usually considerably shorter than those to state prison.


There are two types of criminal courts: trial courts and appellate courts.

Trial courts
Trial courts hear evidence and decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. Trials for infractions and misdemeanors are held in justice or municipal courts, and felony trials are held in superior courts. Felony criminal convictions, whether obtained by trials or guilty pleas, may be appealed by defendants to the courts of appeal.

Juvenile courts are also trial courts, but follow different rules and procedures than criminal courts. Juvenile court proceedings do not include juries. The judge makes a finding based on the evidence and decides the disposition of the case after considering information provided by the probation department in a probation report.

Appellate courts
Appellate courts (courts of appeal) do not hear evidence. Their role is to review the record of the trial court and determine whether errors occurred during the legal proceedings. After a decision by the court of appeal, either the prosecution or the defense may request a hearing before the California Supreme Court. If a court of appeal or the California Supreme Court reverses a conviction, there may be a new trial. If so, crime victims and witnesses may be required to appear to testify again.

To determine if a case in which you were a victim has been appealed by the defendant, you may call the California Attorney General's Office, Victim Notification Program, at (916) 324-5035. This program locates victims with cases on appeal and keeps them informed of case updates and decisions. In addition, the program provides victims with information explaining the appellate process and recent developments in the fight for criminal justice reform.

From the Criminal Victim’s Handbook of the State of California

Civil Prosecution

Whereas criminal prosecution is an action of the people against a defendant which may result in some combination of incarceration, monetary penalties and/or probation, civil prosecution is a legal action by one person against another which may result in monetary damages. The case against the defendant is pursued by an attorney hired by the victim, or plaintiff. A civil action may be filed even if a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal proceeding.

The best known case involving both criminal and civil prosecution is probably the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. O. J. Simpson was found not guilty in the criminal court but was found to have been responsible for their deaths in subsequent civil proceedings and the victims’ families were awarded significant monetary judgments.

If you are the victim of a sexual assault, you have the right to retain an attorney of your choice and pursue a civil action against your attacker even if criminal prosecution is not undertaken or is unsuccessful.