Your phone rang at 1 a.m. and you knew it could not be good news. You had been a little worried when your daughter had told you about her plans to go to the SXSW festival with her girlfriends, but she was an adult now and you bit your tongue. You answered the phone with a sense of dread. Your daughter was on the other end, sobbing. The good news was she wasn't hurt. The bad news was she had been arrested. Your heart started racing. What was going to happen now? What should you do? Here is some basic information for how to deal with a criminal case in Austin.
For a general overview of criminal law, you may wish to first browse through this FindLaw section on Criminal Law Basics. Then return here for information specific to Travis County.
The first folks usually encountered in a criminal case in Austin are officers from the Austin Police Department. The Travis County District Attorney will likely be prosecuting the case at the Travis County Criminal Courts in the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center and time may be spent in the Travis County Jail at 500 W. 10th Street or the Travis County Correctional Center in Del Valle.
Booking and Bail
After arrest, the next order of business is generally "booking." This is the process by which information about the accused and the charges against her are officially entered into the system and her mug shot and fingerprints are taken. The Central Booking Facility in Austin is in the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center at the corner of 10th and Neuces.
Usually, in order to secure the accused's release from jail, a cash, surety or personal bond must be posted. Here is some information from the Travis County Sherriff's Office on the different types of bonds and how to determine which is required in a given case.
For a general overview of the topic, check out FindLaw's article on booking and bail.
Classification of Crimes
In Texas, criminal offenses are designated as either felonies or misdemeanors. In general, felonies are the more serious offenses for which the penalties are greater.
Both felonies and misdemeanors are further classified into sub-categories depending on their relative seriousness and associated penalties. Felonies can fall into 5 separate categories, and misdemeanors can fall into 3.
How a crime is classified can have a significant effect. For one thing, the penalties can vary greatly. For example, in Austin and the rest of Texas, the least serious felony (a "state jail felony") is punishable by 180 days to 2 years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000, whereas the most serious misdemeanor ("Class A") is punishable by imprisonment up to 1 year, a fine of up to $4000, or both.
Stages of A Criminal Case
One of the initial court appearances is generally the arraignment. This is when the charges are read, the defendant is asked how she pleads, and the parties are advised of future court dates.
If the defendant pleads guilty, she will proceed to sentencing. If she pleads not guilty, she will likely proceed to pretrial proceedings and perhaps trial. A criminal trial is generally divided up into the following main phases:
- Jury Selection
- Opening Statements
- Testimony by Witnesses (including cross examination)
- Closing Arguments
- Instructions Presented to the Jury
- Jury Deliberation
- Jury Verdict
It is also possible that the case will resolve by plea bargain or dismissal by the prosecutor.
If the defendant is convicted, she will generally have the right to appeal to have the sentence reduced or the conviction overturned.
Getting An Attorney
Being charged with a crime can be a confusing and upsetting experience. It is strongly recommended that you retain an experienced defense attorney to help you navigate the process. Among other things, a skilled legal professional can help negotiate the best plea bargain possible or present the best defense if the case proceeds to trial. For more information on defense strategies, using a lawyer on appeal, and more, check out this FindLaw section on Using a Criminal Lawyer.