"You have the right to remain silent" are never words you want to hear. But like it or not, you are being pushed into the rear seat of a Bridgeport police cruiser and transported to the nearest station. A criminal conviction can lead to massive fines, deprivation of freedom and social stigma. Even a simple DUI carries serious financial repercussions and possible jail time. To make matters worse, Connecticut's criminal justice system can be hard to navigate and just plain dense. To help you navigate these murky waters, we have created a guide to prepare you for what to expect from your Bridgeport criminal case.
Been Caught Stealing
You won't be hauled off to jail for most criminal charges. Usually, you will instead be given a ticket informing you of your next court date. If so, you should take this court date very seriously; you can be convicted for "failing to appear" as a separate crime.
If you have been arrested, you will be placed in handcuffs and driven to either the police station or the Bridgeport Correctional Center. It is generally a good idea to invoke your Miranda right to remain silent until you have spoken with an attorney, as statements may be used against you later in court.
Once you arrive at jail you will proceed to "booking," where the staff will confiscate your personal belongings until your release, ask biographical information, and take your fingerprint. Sooner or later, you will be given an opportunity to make a telephone call. It would be wise to contact someone you trust who could post bail or otherwise arrange for your release.
Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution prevents Connecticut from holding you in jail indefinitely. In fact, within 48 hours you are constitutionally guaranteed an arraignment where the judge will formally read the charges against you and set bail.
Your first official court appearance is usually an arraignment. This is your first opportunity to hear the formal charges against you, though most people waive a "formal reading." You will also have a chance to enter a plea. It is usually a bad idea to plead guilty right away, as you have not seen the evidence against you, spoken with an attorney, considered possible defenses or negotiated a plea bargain.
Your arraignment will most likely take place at the Fairfield County Superior Courthouse, though the Bridgeport Municipal Court handles cases that involve a fine only, such as traffic tickets. Defense attorneys will likely hover around the courtroom but will probably not have time to talk about your case in any depth. After your charges are read and you have entered a plea, the judge will either release you or set bail.
Get Out of Jail (not) Free
Defendants for minor crimes will be released "on their own recognizance" pending trial. However, the judge may instead send you to jail and set the bail amount. Bail is a specific amount of money that you deposit with the court to be released. Bail will be returned to you if you appear at all your scheduled court dates. The purpose of bail is to ensure that you will not flee the jurisdiction following your release, so if you fail to appear you risk forfeiting your deposit. If you are unable to post bail, try contacting a bail bond company, which will loan you the full amount of the bail in exchange for 10%.
You're in a tight spot, so you probably want to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Criminal defense lawyers typically work on a "flat fee" basis, which means they will represent you "through prelim" (your preliminary hearing) or "through trial" for a specified amount of money, as opposed to charging you an hourly rate. Lawyers can be expensive, so if you lack the financial resources to hire a private attorney the State may appoint a Public Defender to represent you.
In Bridgeport, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing in all felony or gross (serious) misdemeanor cases. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether the State has enough evidence to justify holding a jury trial. The precise procedure may vary, but the prosecutor will typically call a few police officers and your attorney will get to cross examine them. It is possible that the charges will be reduced or dismissed entirely, but it is more likely that the judge will hold you to answer for trial.
You have a constitutional right to trial by jury in any case punishable by more than six months imprisonment. Going to trial is a big gamble; either you win big and are found not guilty, or you lose and are subject to punishment without the benefit of a favorable plea bargain. It is generally unwise to represent yourself at trial. There is an old saying among lawyers: "he who represents himself has a fool for a client."
The first step at trial is to select a jury. For most criminal cases in Connecticut six jurors and two alternates will be selected, though twelve jurors are needed for certain offenses. Next, the attorneys will make opening statements and present evidence. Most evidence will be in the form of witness testimony, though recording, documents, maps or physical objects can be introduced into evidence as well.
Once both sides present evidence, there will follow closing statements, which will be your attorney's last chance to convince the jury of your innocence. During testimony questions are asked, answers are given, and evidence is merely presented, but during closing, lawyers are allowed to comment on the evidence and how it relates to the law.
The judge will then read jury instructions to the jury and give them a chance to deliberate. Every member of the jury must unanimously agree to convict you before you can be found guilty. If even one juror refuses to agree the case ends in a mistrial, a major victory for the defendant.
Now that you know what to expect from your Bridgeport criminal case, you may want to find out more basic criminal law information or learn more about defenses used in criminal cases.