If you've been accused of a serious crime, your chances of success as a criminal defendant may depend on your ability to effectively navigate the criminal justice system and understand the criminal case against you. The following is an overview of that criminal procedure system, along with answers to some of the most frequently asked criminal law questions.
Should I talk to the police?
It is in your best interests to avoid making any statements to the police. You should also avoid signing anything given to you by law enforcement. If the police are investigating you, you may or may not be aware of it. At some point, they may ask you to come into the station and give a statement.
Before beginning an interrogation, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, a police officer is required to give you your Miranda warning. Miranda warnings are named after the landmark Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona. This warning is a standard part of police procedure and includes your constitutional right to be silent and your constitutional right to an attorney.
Instead of talking to the police, you should ask for an attorney. A criminal defense attorney can intercede on your behalf and get valuable information that may result in criminal charges not being filed.
Most importantly, an attorney can answer your criminal law questions and prevent you from giving a statement that the District Attorney can use against you at trial.
Can police arrest me without evidence of my guilt?
In order to arrest you, the police must have probable cause that you've committed a crime. Once they have probable cause, they can arrest you in a number of ways:
- They can make a lawful arrest. If you're arrested and are in custody, your arraignment generally must occur within 48 hours.
- If they believe you're not at risk to flee the area, they may submit your case to a District Attorney's office. The District Attorney will then send you a letter in the mail requesting your appearance for arraignment. In some places, you may be served with a criminal summons which outlines the charges against you and tells you when to appear in court.
- They may ask you to surrender yourself at the police station voluntarily.
What happens at an arraignment?
Your initial arraignment will be your first appearance in court. At the arraignment, your attorney will receive the complaint stating the criminal charges that have been filed against you. If you're in custody, your attorney will have the opportunity to argue bail.
What is a preliminary hearing?
If you are charged with a felony, your next appearance will likely be a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the judge will determine whether or not there's probable cause to believe you have committed the crimes filed against you. Your attorney or public defender will use the preliminary hearing to dispute the evidence against you. They will also use this time to lock down the testimony of key witnesses, cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses, and determine inconsistencies in the District Attorney's case.
What happens after the preliminary hearing?
If the judge determines that there is enough evidence to believe that you committed the crime, your case will be sent to the appropriate state or federal court for trial. Once there, you will be arraigned on the charges to be filed against you. These charges may differ from your initial arraignment. This is because the District Attorney is free to file any charges they believe were proven at the preliminary hearing, including any criminal offenses that were not in the original complaint.
This is also when the discovery process starts, which is when the District Attorney and the defense attorney request and exchange evidence in support of their cases. This is an opportunity for the defense attorney to request the prosecution's evidence against the defendant, such as expert reports, photographs, and recordings.
What is a pretrial conference?
Your next date in court will be the pretrial conference. At the pretrial conference, your lawyer will argue pretrial motions. Such motions include a motion to suppress or exclude evidence from trial or a motion to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence.
Your attorney can also discuss a plea bargain with the District Attorney. A plea bargain may result in your guilty plea. Entering a guilty plea may lessen a charge in order to obtain a lighter sentence. It may also reduce a charge from a serious offense to a simple felony or "wobbler offense." A wobbler offense means a criminal charge can have multiple classifications depending on the state's penal code. Generally, a wobbler offense is one that has the possibility of "wobbling down" from first degree to second degree or to a lower offense, like a misdemeanor.
In general, if it is a first-time offense and a non-violent crime, the District Attorney may be persuaded to seek a lighter sentence or punishment against the defendant. Another factor the District Attorney may consider is whether the defendant has a criminal record. They may also consider whether the defendant has committed this same type of crime before.
What happens at a criminal trial?
If no disposition is reached on your case, it will be set for trial. In general, you have the right to a jury trial if a criminal conviction would result in six months or more of jail time. The typical stages of a trial include selecting a jury, presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and making closing statements. It is the prosecution's burden to prove a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the defendant may claim an affirmative defense, like self-defense or defense of others. For example, if a defendant used violence or committed a crime in defense of a family member, it is the defendant's burden to prove this defense during the trial.
After all of this, the jury will deliberate and return a verdict. In some states, a mistrial will be declared if the jury doesn't reach a unanimous verdict or if the jury is at a standstill. If the jury does return a verdict, the judge will determine the length of prison time depending on the state's sentencing guidelines.
Let a Local Attorney Answer Any Additional Criminal Law Questions You May Have
There is a lot more to a trial than can be covered by the criminal law questions answered above. Your jurisdiction or individual circumstances may differ significantly. Hiring a competent criminal defense law firm can help take some uncertainty out of the process. Contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer today for legal advice.