Criminal Legal Help

Legal services exist for all types of criminal legal problems. Services are available whether you need free or low-cost representation or a criminal defense attorney.

This article offers some guidelines on where you can begin looking for legal aid providers and what to bring to your first meeting with your attorney.

If you're hit with criminal charges, you need legal help right away. If this is your first criminal case, you're probably overwhelmed by the experience and unsure what your first steps should be. Where can you find legal help? What type of legal assistance do you need?

Finding Legal Assistance

Anyone facing criminal charges must have legal representation. Criminal law is more complicated than civil court. Your freedom is at stake, not your money. Failing in criminal court means you could spend years in prison. You have the right to defend yourself, but nobody should ever represent themselves in a criminal matter.

Many places offer low-cost/no-cost legal resources for those who qualify for services. Some places you can look for free legal help include:

  • The American Bar Association and state bar associations. The ABA has an online lawyer referral service, which includes the attorney's current standing with the bar and any areas of specialization.
  • Nonprofit legal aid clinics like the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles can review your case and provide attorney referrals.
  • The courthouse self-help center can often provide referrals and legal information about your case, although the workers will not answer any legal questions.
  • Online attorney referral services such as FindLaw can help you find criminal law attorneys in your area.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants an attorney if they cannot obtain one. How do you get a court-appointed attorney?

Asking for a Court-Appointed Attorney

The U.S. court case Gideon v. Wainwright established criminal defendants' right to a public defender if they couldn't afford their own attorney. Not everyone charged with a serious crime can receive a court-appointed attorney. Before you can have a court-appointed attorney, you must do several things:

  • Your charges must be felonies or misdemeanors. Attorneys are not provided for civil cases or infractions like speeding tickets. You may request an attorney when you face jail time, for instance, for a DUI or if you have multiple warrants.
  • You must ask the judge at your arraignment for representation. The judge or pretrial services may ask about your income and financial status. You may need to provide proof of income before you receive an attorney.
  • Different counties have differing standards for low-income defendants. If your income is too high to meet the threshold, but you still cannot afford an attorney, you may qualify for partial indigency. The court will appoint an attorney, but you may need to reimburse part of the attorney's fees after the trial.

For felonies and most misdemeanors, you have an automatic right of appeal, known as a first appeal. Your right to an attorney extends through this first appeal. Defendants must pay for later appeals, called discretionary appeals.

What You Need From a Criminal Defense Attorney

Whether you hire an attorney or have one appointed, there are some things you need your attorney to do. A good attorney always has your best interests in mind, but you should ask questions whenever you're unsure about anything. After all, it's your case.

Plea Bargains

The majority of criminal cases never go to trial. Most of the time, defendants are either released on probation or the defendant takes a plea bargain for a lesser charge. Your attorney and the prosecutor work out a plea bargain before trial. Your attorney must review all the pros and cons of a plea deal with you before you agree to it. Be sure it includes:

  • A written guarantee that you will receive the sentence prescribed and that this is not just a recommendation from the prosecutor.
  • A right to appeal the sentence. Never sign a plea bargain that waives your right to appeal.
  • All included offenses. You should not plead to a lesser offense that was not part of the original crime.


The prosecution makes its case against you with evidence. For instance, in a simple traffic case, the evidence is the state trooper's radar reading that you were driving 15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.

Your defense attorney must know how to counter or discredit that information. This may mean finding evidence that shows the prosecution's evidence is wrong or finding information that shows you had a reason for your actions.

Witnesses and Expert Testimony

Some of the prosecution's evidence comes from witness statements and expert testimony. For instance, in your traffic case, the state trooper must testify that they clocked you at 15 miles per hour over the speed limit. Your attorney can question witnesses, cast doubt on their testimony, and present witnesses on your behalf.

After Your Arrest

After your arrest, you must go before the judge within 72 hours (48 in some jurisdictions) for an arraignment and bond hearing. At your arraignment, the judge reads the charges against you, asks if you want an attorney, and usually sets bail. The judge may release you on your own recognizance, meaning you're released without bond until the trial.

Depending on the state or county, you may have a public defender at the arraignment to argue your bond amount, or you may need to find an attorney before your arraignment. Every state, and sometimes every county, has different rules for the order of a post-arrest process.

After the arraignment, you need to speak to an attorney. Your attorney will need documents and other information about your case. Sometimes, the prosecutor will send this information to your defense attorney, but sometimes, you need to sign releases for your attorney to obtain it. In other cases, you may have to give items to your attorney.

Depending on the nature of the case, your attorney may need:

  • Your arrest record (the police agency should provide this)
  • Your criminal record (you may need to request this if you were incarcerated in another state)
  • Your driving record and DMV history
  • Medical records (you will need to sign a HIPAA release)
  • School or educational records or transcripts
  • Documents to establish a timeline. This may include receipts, credit card statements, travel documents, airline tickets, etc.
  • Phone records and text messages

Your attorney may ask for the names of witnesses and friends who can corroborate your story or provide a character witness. Anything you can give an attorney to help bolster your case may help.

If You Are a Crime Victim

Sometimes, it seems like courts forget about the victims of crimes in the rush to arrest and convict criminals. Defendants have their rights protected, but who looks out for victims? Do victims have rights in court?

In some courts, such as family law and domestic violence cases, victims may need to testify against the person who harmed them. In these courts, victim advocacy groups may provide legal support for victims in hearings and trials.

However, crime victims do not have a right to legal representation in criminal court. Victims may want help with legal issues arising from court cases, but they must find their own attorneys. Legal clinics for low-income people in these situations are available statewide and through victim advocacy programs.

Get Legal Help

When you need legal advice, you need it immediately. You need someone in your area who knows your state laws and local courts. FindLaw's attorney directory can point you to a criminal defense attorney who can protect your civil rights and give you the help you need.

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