You've been caught shoplifting! You aren't really a criminal, but you liked the thrill of taking some minor item from the grocery store without paying for it. They caught you on camera, brought it to the police, and now you received notice that charges have been filed against you. Committing a criminal offense is remarkably easy some have even estimated that the average person commits three felonies each day, purely by accident. To ease this unpleasant experience, FindLaw has created this guide for what to expect from your Hartford criminal case.
"You have the right to remain silent …" are words no one wants to hear. Many people charged with crimes aren't arrested, but if so, one of the first thing you'll probably hear are your Miranda warnings. Police are required to remind you of four specific rights before they ask you any questions:
- The right to remain silent;
- Anything you say can be used against you in court;
- The right to an attorney;
- The right to a public defender if you cannot afford an attorney.
In almost all circumstances, it is wise to invoke your rights and request to speak with an attorney. The prosecutor can use your own statements to impeach your credibility at trial, and that goes even for innocent misunderstandings.
After you've been transported to either the police station or the Hartford Correctional Center, you will be allowed to make a phone call. However tempting it may be to call your ex for some sympathy, the smart arrestee probably would call either a lawyer or a trusted family member who can post bail and arrange for their release.
Arraignment and Bail
Your first formal court appearance will be your arraignment. An arraignment is a formal reading of the charges against you (normally waived) and your chance to enter a plea. It is almost never in your interest to plead guilty at this stage, before you've had a chance to review the state's evidence, consult an attorney, or consider possible defenses.
You can request for the judge to appoint a public defender to represent you. However, if your income is too high to qualify for a public defender, you should consider hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney. Most defense attorneys work on a "flat fee" basis, which means they won't rack up the dreaded "billable hours" working on your case.
At the end of your arraignment, the judge will either release you "on your own recognizance" or set the bail amount. Bail is a monetary deposit that will be returned to you once you've attended every court date. The purpose of bail is to prevent you from skipping town the second you are released. If you miss any court dates, you risk forfeiting your bail. If you cannot afford the bail amount, you should speak with a Hartford bail bonds company. Bail bondsmen will typically loan you the bail amount in exchange for 10% of the total.
If you have been charged with a felony or gross misdemeanor, your next likely court appearance will be a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is basically a mini-trial without a jury. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for the judge to decide whether sufficient evidence exists to "hold you to answer" for each of the charged crimes. The state has a low evidentiary burden to succeed at the "prelim," but it gives your attorney a valuable opportunity to cross examine key witnesses.
After (or before) your prelim, you attorney will likely file motions in your defense. One of the most common is a motion to suppress evidence. This motion alleges that some or all of the evidence gathered against you was obtained in violation of your Constitutional rights. If your attorney can persuade the judge that the police officer violated the Constitution, any evidence gathered as a result of that violation may be ignored during trial.
Another common motion is a motion to dismiss. At this stage, a judge has held you to answer at prelim. Your attorney can allege that the state failed to bring sufficient evidence of one or all the charges at the prelim. Attorneys typically attack one specific element (requirement) of a crime, because there no crime can be proven unless every element is met.
Your attorney put up a good fight, but failed to get the charges dismissed. Now you are faced with a difficult decision: either go to trial or take the plea bargain. A plea bargain is when a defendant admits his or her guilt in exchange for a favorable sentence. You lose your right to a trial and will likely go to jail, but you will receive a relatively lighter jail sentence. Going to trial is a big gamble for defendants. Either it pays off and you're off the hook, or you are convicted and receive a jail sentence without the benefit of a favorable plea bargain.
Before a trial can even begin, the attorneys must select a jury. In Connecticut, six jurors and two alternates will be chosen, though twelve jurors are needed for certain offenses. The lawyers will then make opening statements and present evidence. Evidence is normally witness testimony, but can be documents, physical objects, or recordings, as well. Your attorney will have one last shot at convincing the jury of your innocence at closing statement. During testimony evidence can merely be presented to the court, but during argument, lawyers are allowed to argue about the significance of the evidence as it relates to the law.
The judge will then read jury instructions and give the jury 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.
Fight back! Read up on basic criminal law information and make sure you know your constitutional rights.