How to Handle Your First Criminal Charge
Being arrested can be a life altering and traumatizing experience. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of the criminal process, and whatever follows your arrest will probably involve a lot of time and money. However, there are some ways to navigate the process more successfully.
Handling a Charge After an Arrest
Understand the criminal process.When you are arrested, it means that the government--the police, in this case--believe that you have committed a crime. Moreover, they believe that they have the evidence to support a finding ofprobable cause,meaning thatyouare theprobable causeof the crime that was committed.
- Supporting a finding of probable cause requires less evidence than is required to secure a conviction. In order to secure a conviction, the government must provebeyond a reasonable doubtthat in fact you did commit the crime they hadprobable causeto believe you committed.
- Jailsare typically run by city or county governments, and house inmates who were proven guilty of a misdemeanor or are awaiting trial--for either a felony or a misdemeanor. In contrast,prisonsare run by states or the federal government. They are where defendants who are found guilty of felonies or serious misdemeanors are sent.
- Bond,orbail,is a sum of money that you pay in order to satisfy the court that you will return for trial. Theoretically, if you return for trial, you will get your bail money back. In practice, the bond you posted is often rolled over into fines if you are found guilty. If you are found not guilty, you often have to make a specific request to get the bond money back. If your bond was posted by a bail bondsman, then they get the money back, and not you.
Understand the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor.In every state and the federal government, crimes are classified as either misdemeanors or felonies.Knowing whether you have been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor can be incredibly important when it comes to plea agreements and possible punishments.
- Amisdemeanoris generally considered a less severe crime than a felony.Misdemeanors are generally punishable by fines and jail time of less than one year.Examples include minor thefts, DUIs, and minor drug offenses.
- Afelonyis a serious criminal offense.Felonies can be punishable by substantial fines and prison time exceeding one year.Examples of felonies include murder and rape.
Know if you have been charged with a federal crime or a state crime.When you are arrested and charged with a crime, it will either be a federal crime or a state crime. Knowing where you are being charged can be the difference between making a successful defense and being convicted. Federal crimes are usually more serious than state crimes, although that is not always the case. In general, the differences between state and federal criminal procedures include:
- Different prosecutors. In federal court, prosecutors do not have as big of a case load as in state court, and therefore the prosecutor is likely to have spent a substantial amount of time on your case.In state court, the prosecutors usually have a bigger caseload and are less familiar with your particular case.If you are being charged with a federal crime, it usually means the prosecutor has spent a lot of time collecting evidence and putting a case together.
- Different judges. In federal court, judges are appointed by the President of the United States and can only be removed from the bench by impeachment.In contrast, state court judges are usually elected or appointed by the governor.
- Different bail. In federal court, bail usually includes conditions and supervision.In state court, bail is usually a relatively straightforward process only involving money.
Know what to expect at arraignment.After you are arrested and booked at the county jail, you will have your case scheduled and you will appear in front of a judge for the first time at your arraignment. On the day of your arraignment, you will be brought to court where you will most likely meet with your attorney for the first time.In the courtroom, you will be informed of the charges being filed against you and you will have the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty.
- The prosecutor will also have an opportunity to describe their case to you and recommend bail to the judge.
- Bail is an amount of money, or some other property or rights, given up in order to be released from jail pending the completion of your trial.If you do not show up for all required court hearings, your bail can be revoked, the court can keep whatever you gave up, and can issue a warrant for your arrest.
Keep up with your paperwork.When you are released, you will be given paperwork that, at a minimum, tells you exactly what you are charged with and when your next court date is. Keep up with this paperwork. In some jurisdictions, a standard bail amount is set for minor charges. In other jurisdictions, all bail is set at arraignment. If you miss an arraignment, you can expect as a matter of course to await trial in jail, which could be months away.
- In some jurisdictions, for serious crimes, there are two arraignments, one where bail is set and another before your trial court.
- The precise order and name of all of the pretrial criminal procedures varies by jurisdiction. Usually, the order is: arrest, probable cause hearing, arraignment, bail is set, second arraignment.
Decide if you want to use a public defender.Many times, if an arraignment comes very quickly after arrest and a defendant claims to be unable to afford an attorney at arraignment, the court will assign a lawyer to the defendant on a preliminary basis. The public defender's office will then usually screen the defendant to make sure that the defendant qualifies for representation. If you qualify, you need to decide whether you want to use the services of a public defender, even before you have had a substantive interview with the public defender.
- If the stakes were not so high, the caseload of most public defenders would be laughable. But on average, public defenders in the US have over 300 cases per year. In some jurisdictions, the caseload is so large, that a public defender can spend only 7 minutes on each case.In Florida, the annual number of misdemeanor cases per public defender per year wasover 2000.You should do whatever you can to secure the services of a private criminal attorney.
Choose an attorney.You need to find an attorney as soon as possible. Your state's legal referral service can help, but there are some things you need to know.Although there is a great guide to finding an attorney, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- If possible, find an experienced attorney that is not only experienced in criminal law, but also is experienced in defending the types of charges that you are facing. Defending against a DUI is very different from defending against a murder charge.
- Think about how you want the case to end, as that will have a bearing on who you select. If you are guilty and you want the penalties minimized, as a general rule, try and find an attorney who is a former prosecutor. The relationships that he or she has with current prosecutors can often lead to a better negotiation. If you are innocent, get an attorney who is effective at trial and is prepared to go to trial--oftentimes, one who has practiced for the defense exclusively or primarily.
- There are two sides to every case, and oftentimes the side which speaks to witnesses first can influence the way they perceive the events in question. It behooves you to get started as quickly as possible.
Organize evidence.Before you meet with your attorney, try and organize as much evidence as you can. Write down a sequence of events. Make sure that at every stage possible, you can identify the persons involved in the incident, the times and exact locations of the incident, and any witnesses who may or may not have seen it, where they were, and when they got there.
Meet with your attorney and plan your defense.When you meet with your attorney, you will go over the events surrounding your arrest. He or she will ask questions that enable him or her to begin to develop a theory of your case. The period between your release on bond and your trial is a time of a great behind the scenes activity. Motions to suppress evidence, witness interviews, and subpoenas will all be filed with the court. A great deal of every case is won and lost during this period, so make sure that you provide all the information you can during this meeting.
- Be completely honest and forthcoming. If you think that the prosecution has enough evidence for a conviction, explain why. Aside from your priest, there is probably no one who has stricter standards of confidentiality than your attorney. They need to know everything that happened in order to create an effective defense.
Keep in touch.Attorneys are notorious for not keeping in touch with their clients. You have a right to know what is happening with your case, so if there is something you want to know, ask. Conversely, if there is anything your attorney needs from you in the way of documentation, you need to make sure that they receive it promptly. Your freedom could depend on it.
Consider plea offers.The overwhelming majority of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargaining. You will almost certainly be offered a plea at some point in the process. Consider the offers, but remember, you will be officially convicted of a crime if you plead guilty. A criminal conviction will permanently affect your life, perhaps in very profound ways.
Go to trial.If you don't accept a plea, you will go to trial. Dress well--no jeans, no t-shirts, no tennis shoes, no tank tops. Get plenty of rest. Most importantly, follow through with the strategy you and your attorney have planned.
Handling a Charge Before an Arrest
Find out what type of crime you are charged with.In a minority of cases, you might find out that there is a warrant for your arrest prior to the actual arrest. Find out if you are charged with a misdemeanor or felony. Your subsequent course of action will vary accordingly.
- Generally, a police officers don't charge people for misdemeanors unless they witness the crime. Therefore, if you have an arrest warrant based on a misdemeanor charge, it is almost always a bench warrant resulting from a failure to appear in court, usually for a traffic ticket. If this is the case, simply call the clerk of court in the county filing the charge and ask them what the fine is. If you can afford to pay it, then mail payment in. If you cannot afford to pay it, or you want the fine reduced, then you will be given a new court date.
- For a few misdemeanors, such as check fraud or shoplifting, the police might secure an arrest warrant even if they don't witness the crime happening. For misdemeanors like these, follow the steps below, and handle the charge just as you would a felony.
Speak with an attorney.If you have an arrest warrant for a felony charge, then it is probably based on a citizen going to a district attorney's office and persuading them to file charges, the testimony of a witness that has implicated you in a crime, or the result of a police investigation of you and your activities. This means that the police or district attorney already have shown a judge probable cause to arrest you. You need to speak with an attorney as quickly as possible to discern the nature of the charges and the evidence against you.
Turn yourself in.Your attorney may be able to arrange for you to turn yourself in at central booking rather than waiting to be arrested. If this is the case, prepare for what that will entail.
- Bring only what you need. After you are fingerprinted and taken to jail, the jailers will confiscate your belongings and issue a you a jail uniform. Therefore, you will want to bring as little of value as possible to central booking when you go. Bring a couple pieces of identification and very little else. Bring no money, credit cards, or jewelry, including watches.
Video: How to avoid a Criminal Conviction for Drug Possession or Supply
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