5 Things to Know About the San Diego County Criminal Justice System

  1. Where do I go if charged with a crime? San Diego County has four courthouses that hear criminal cases (misdemeanors and felonies): Central Division in Downtown San Diego, South County Division in Chula Vista, East County Division in El Cajon and North County Division in Vista. Where a case is filed will depend where the alleged crime was committed (not where the defendant lives, as some believe). There are a few exceptions, such as when a case is filed with a specialized unit, but listed here is the general rule.

  2. Who files the criminal charges? There are two prosecuting agencies in the county for state offenses: the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office (which has branch offices near the above-listed courthouses) and the San Diego City Attorney’s Office- Criminal Division. They represent “the people of the State of California” versus the defendant. The City Attorney’s Office will only prosecute misdemeanors alleged to have been committed within the city limits of San Diego. Everything else is handled by the District Attorney’s Office. Now technically, the California Attorney General also has prosecuting powers, but you don’t see that often.

  3. What is the process of charges being filed? When one is suspected of committing a crime, law enforcement generates a report. This occurs either because law enforcement makes contact with the suspect, or because a complaining witness files a police report or contacts law enforcement after the alleged crime. The report is then forwarded to the appropriate prosecuting agency (see #2 above) and the agency will make the ultimate decision on what to do. They can either reject the case for prosecution, decide to file additional charges or fewer charges. It can get confusing when someone is arrested for a felony within the San Diego city limits: sometimes, one is arrested on a felony. The reports are forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office but they will elect not to file felony charges, and instead will refer the case to the City Attorney’s Office for consideration of misdemeanor charges. In rare occasions, the reverse is true (the case starts with the City Attorney’s Office and gets bumped up to the District Attorney’s Office).

  4. As a complaining witness/victim, do I make the decision about whether charges are filed? Alleged victims of a crime, also referred to as complaining witnesses, do not have the final say on whether charges are filed against an individual. There are various considerations here, but just because an alleged victim says: “I don’t want charges to be filed” doesn’t mean charges won’t be filed. For a more detailed discussion, see San Diego Criminal Law Basics: The Misconceptions Surrounding “Pressing Charges” And The Process Of Filing Criminal Charges.

  5. Can I get a copy of the police report filed? In most situations, a suspect of a crime is not entitled to obtain the police reports from the arresting agency when he or she is listed as a suspect , but listed victims usually can. Different law enforcement agencies will have their own policies, so check with the appropriate department. Usually, the only way to get a copy of the report as a suspect is through discovery within the criminal process, a subpoena within a criminal or civil case, or sometimes, through a public records act request.

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