Best San Diego Criminal Lawyers

Best San Diego Criminal Lawyers

Finding the right criminal defense attorney is crucial if you are facing criminal charges in San Diego. The stakes are high, and having an experienced lawyer on your side can make all the difference in the outcome of your case. Here is an in-depth look at some of the top criminal defense attorneys in San Diego and an overview of criminal law and procedure in California.

How to Choose the Best Criminal Lawyer in San Diego

If you or a loved one have been arrested and charged with a crime in San Diego, it is critical that you consult with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Here are some tips on how to select the best attorney for your situation:

Experience Handling Your Type of Case

One of the most important factors is choosing a lawyer with significant experience handling your specific type of criminal case. Find out how many years the attorney has been practicing criminal law and how many cases similar to yours they have handled. You want someone well-versed in the nuances of your type of case and the potential defenses.

Knowledge of Local Courts and Prosecutors

It’s also key to find a criminal lawyer who has extensive experience in local San Diego courts. They will understand the procedures, players, and tendencies of the specific court your case is in. Having insight into the local prosecutors and judges can also help them build the strongest defense.

Resources and Trial Record

The top criminal defense firms in San Diego have significant resources they can leverage to build a defense, such as skilled investigators, forensic specialists, and research capabilities. You also want an attorney with a proven record of getting positive outcomes, such as case dismissals, acquittals, or favorable plea bargains.

Strong Negotiation and Trial Skills

Since the majority of criminal cases resolve via plea bargain, it’s important your lawyer has strong negotiation abilities. If your case does go to trial, you want an attorney with litigation and trial experience who can argue persuasively before a judge or jury.

Responsive and Supportive Counsel

The best criminal attorneys are not just knowledgeable about the law—they are also responsive, attentive, and supportive counsel. Look for a lawyer who is accessible, prompt in returning calls and emails, and who will dedicate time to explaining the case and answering your questions. You want an advocate in your corner.

Top Criminal Defense Law Firms in San Diego

Here are some of the top-rated criminal defense attorneys and law firms in the San Diego area:

1. San Diego Criminal Attorney

San Diego Criminal Attorney is a leading defense firm respected across Southern California for their relentless advocacy and proven success record. Attorneys Vikas Bajaj and Jonathan Jordan together have over 50 years of criminal law experience and have handled over 10,000 cases. Their team specializes in defending complex felony charges like murder, violent assaults, sex crimes, weapons offenses, theft, and fraud. They are known for working closely with clients and aggressively defending their rights.

2. Kerry L. Armstrong, Attorney at Law

Kerry Armstrong is a former Senior Deputy District Attorney who has been practicing criminal defense in San Diego for over 25 years. He is a nationally-recognized trial lawyer who has received numerous awards and accolades. His practice focuses on complex sex crimes, domestic violence, weapons charges, murder, and drug offenses. Armstrong is known for his meticulous trial preparation and providing personalized attention to each client.

3. Gatzke Dillon & Balance LLP

With four former prosecutors on staff, Gatzke Dillon & Balance LLP brings unparalleled experience to criminal defense cases. Their areas of expertise include domestic violence, DUI, juvenile crimes, theft, white collar offenses, and expungements. Senior Partners Mark Dillon and Paul Pfingst, who served as District Attorney of San Diego County, lead an exceptional team of trial attorneys with decades of courtroom success.

4. Bird Marella

Bird Marella is one of the preeminent litigation firms in California. Their team of skilled criminal defense attorneys includes former federal prosecutors and law professors from top institutions. They handle complex federal cases involving fraud, money laundering, RICO, drug trafficking, and computer crimes. Their experience with high-profile matters makes them well-suited to defend public figures and corporations facing criminal inquiries.

5. Sisson & Bricker, LLP

Led by renowned trial lawyer George Sidney Sisson, Jr., Sisson & Bricker provides formidable legal defense for individuals and organizations charged with white collar and corporate crimes. Their services include representing targets and witnesses in government investigations, grand jury proceedings, regulatory compliance, and parallel civil litigation. The firm’s experience spans securities fraud, antitrust violations, FCPA matters, money laundering, and RICO.

Overview of Criminal Law and Procedure in California

Now that we’ve covered how to select a criminal defense attorney, let’s overview the key aspects of criminal law and procedure in California that are relevant to your case:

Classification of Crimes

California criminal offenses are divided into three categories:

  • Felonies – Felonies are the most serious type of crime in California, punishable by imprisonment in state prison or county jail. Some common felonies include murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and grand theft. Felony sentences can range from 16 months to life in prison.
  • Misdemeanors – Misdemeanors are less serious crimes that typically carry up to 1 year in county jail. Common misdemeanors include DUI, petty theft, simple assault, public intoxication, vandalism, and trespassing.
  • Infractions – Infractions are minor offenses punished by fines rather than jail time. Examples include traffic tickets and low-level drug possession.

Elements of a Criminal Offense

For each criminal charge, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s conduct met all the essential “elements” of the offense. These basic elements are:

  • Actus Reus – A guilty physical act or failure to act when there is a duty to act. This is the external component of the crime.
  • Mens Rea -A guilty mental state. This is the mental component of the crime that requires wrongful intent. Accidents or mistakes generally negate the mens rea element.
  • Concurrence – The actus reus and mens rea occur simultaneously.
  • Causation – The defendant’s conduct directly led to or caused the prohibited result.
  • Harm – The act resulted in injury or harm to another person, property, or society.

Types of Criminal Offenses

While there are thousands of specific crimes defined in the California Penal Code and other statutes, most offenses fall into several common categories:

  • Violent Crimes – Offenses involving force, injury, or threat of injury. Includes murder, manslaughter, assault, battery, rape, robbery.
  • Theft Crimes – Taking property without consent, including larceny, embezzlement, shoplifting, fraud.
  • Weapons Offenses – Possessing, manufacturing, or trafficking prohibited weapons.
  • Drug Crimes – Offenses related to prohibited substances, including possession, distribution, trafficking.
  • Sex Crimes – Unlawful sexual conduct such as rape, statutory rape, sexual assault, child molestation.
  • DUI – Operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated on alcohol or drugs.
  • White Collar/Financial Crimes – Deceptive business practices, cybercrime, identity theft, embezzlement, credit/lending fraud.
  • Public Order Crimes – Conduct that threatens public safety or decency. Includes vandalism, disorderly conduct, trespassing, gang activity.

Stages of a Criminal Case in California

Here is an overview of the key stages in the life cycle of a California criminal proceeding:

Criminal Investigation

The first stage after a crime is a police investigation. Officers gather evidence and establish probable cause that a suspect committed the offense. The probe may involve interviews, interrogations, searches, surveillance, and forensic analysis. The results are turned over to prosecutors.

Criminal Charges and Arrest Warrant

If police establish probable cause, the case is forwarded to the District Attorney’s office. Prosecutors will file a formal criminal complaint listing the charges, starting the court criminal process. An arrest warrant may be issued at this stage for the defendant.

Arrest and Booking

Once a warrant is issued, law enforcement will arrest the defendant. The suspect is photographed, fingerprinted, and formally booked into custody. Bail may be set at this juncture.

Pretrial Hearings

Several court hearings occur before trial. At the arraignment, charges are read and a plea entered. Pretrial motions may address suppression of evidence or confession. A preliminary hearing establishes if there is sufficient cause for trial.

Plea Bargaining

Many cases resolve through plea bargaining between the defense and prosecution. The defendant pleads guilty in return for an agreed reduced sentence ordropped charges. If no deal is reached, the case proceeds to a jury trial.

Criminal Trial

At trial, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt through evidence and testimony. The defense seeks to show deficiencies in the state’s case while rebutting evidence. Key steps are jury selection, opening statements, testimony, cross-examination, closing arguments, jury deliberation, and the verdict. Defendants may choose a bench trial where the judge makes the decision.


If convicted, the defendant faces sentencing by the judge. Possible punishments depend on the crime and include incarceration, fines, probation, community service, drug rehabilitation, anger management, or restitution. Victims may provide impact statements.

Common Criminal Defenses

Skilled California criminal lawyers deploy a range of defenses to contest criminal charges and undermine the prosecution’s case, such as:

  • Alibi – The defendant was in a different location when the crime occurred. This attacks the actus reus element.
  • Consent – For crimes against persons or property, the victim consented to the act, negating wrongful intent.
  • Insanity – Due to mental defect, the defendant did not appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of their conduct, attacking mens rea.
  • Self Defense – Use of force was legally justified to protect against imminent bodily harm.
  • Misidentification – The defendant was mistakenly identified as the perpetrator.
  • False confession – The defendant’s allegedly incriminating statements were coerced or given under duress.
  • Suppression – Incriminating evidence was obtained illegally in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.
  • Intoxication – Due to voluntary intoxication, the defendant did not form the requisite mental state.

Sentencing Guidelines

California has complex sentencing guidelines that apply to felony and misdemeanor convictions:

  • Base Sentences – Penal Code establishes standard low, mid, and upper term sentences for each offense based on severity.
  • Enhancements – Additional consecutive terms added for factors like prior felonies, use of a gun, gang crimes.
  • Three Strikes Law – Harsher sentences for repeat serious/violent felonies.
  • Determinate Sentencing – Fixed definite term set by judge based on standards.
  • Indeterminate Sentencing – Range of years up to maximum, with parole boards deciding on actual release date. Used for the most serious crimes.
  • Concurrent vs Consecutive Sentences – Multiple sentences can run together or back-to-back.
  • Probation and Alternative Sentencing – May include rehabilitation programs, community service, house arrest, restitution.


Facing criminal charges in San Diego can be daunting, but an experienced criminal defense attorney can guide you through the complex legal process while aggressively fighting for your rights. Use this overview of top local lawyers and California law to make an informed choice when selecting your criminal defense team. With the right legal representation, you can achieve the most favorable outcome possible.