A brief guide to criminal justice attorneys
In civil lawsuits, a plaintiff files a complaint against a defendant and seeks monetary damages or other forms of compensation. Criminal charges are another matter altogether: here, law enforcement or government agencies press charges against a private citizen or business and ask for a fine and/or jail time. Criminal justice attorneys work for both the prosecution and defense. If you are involved in a criminal lawsuit, here are a few things you should know about the process.
Types of crimes
Every state has its own law codes to follow alongside federal and local guidelines. Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of criminal charges you can face:
• Felonies include the most serious kinds of accusation, such as murder or rape. In some states, these can be grounds for the death penalty.
• Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, such as drunk driving or domestic abuse. Depending on the state, how many times you have broken the crime in question and local regulations, a misdemeanor can become a felony.
• Infractions are minor offenses such as receiving a speeding ticket or violating a noise ordinance. Unlike felonies or misdemeanors, you are generally not entitled to the free services of a criminal justice attorney to defend you in the case of an infraction.
You may be charged directly by the police or a government agency. In some cases, you may face charges at the instigation of a private citizen. For example, victims of domestic violence can ask the local public prosecutor to file charges on their behalf.
Steps of the criminal justice process
When a crime is committed, the police may arrest the culprit they suspect. If you are charged with a crime, in almost all cases you are entitled to be represented by a criminal justice attorney if you cannot pay for one yourself.
Assuming the prosecutor decides to pursue charges, once you are arrested you will have an arraignment hearing. How quickly this happens after your arrest depends on where you are and the nature of the crime.
Criminal justice attorneys work for both the prosecution and defense at this point. The public prosecutor’s task is:
• present a detailed explanation of the charges against the defendant
• to prevent evidence of the defendant’s participation for a crime
• offer a plea bargain, if any
In response, a defendant’s criminal justice attorney may:
• point to procedural or legal errors on the prosecution’s side
• present any evidence on the defendant’s behalf
• request bail and/or release from custody
• advise the defendant on whether to plead guilty, no contest or not guilty
• advise the defendant on whether or not to accept any plea bargains
Throughout the process, you should be careful of taking any steps you do not fully understand the implications of. As the defendant, you are allowed to make your own decisions about whether to testify, accept the prosecution’s plea bargains and decide for yourself how to respond to charges. However, there is a reason the law provides criminal justice attorneys for those who can’t afford them. The law is technical and often difficult for laymen to understand. Listen to any advice your criminal justice attorney offers before making any decisions.
If your case is not dismissed, that does not necessarily mean you will end up in court. Throughout the pretrial process, your criminal justice attorney and the prosecution will be required to regularly provide the other side with evidence and witness statements they plan on using. Such exchanges (known as “discovery”) may help your lawyer prove there is no valid case against you and lead to a dismissal of charges before your trial date.
If you do end up in court, your criminal justice attorney will present mitigating evidence on your behalf, call witnesses and make the strongest possible case for your innocence. Should be found guilty, you will still need legal representation during the sentencing phase. At this time, criminal justice attorneys for the prosecution argue for the strongest applicable sentence, while lawyers for the defense make the case for leniency.
Hiring a criminal justice attorney
If you are charged with a crime and retain the services of a lawyer, contact them immediately. You do not have to make any statement until you have consulted with a criminal justice attorney and should be aware of rights at all times. Whether you are working with a lawyer you already have a relationship with or someone assigned by the court to argue your defense, pay close attention to their advice.
Those without criminal justice attorneys to call upon should seek legal counsel if at all possible. If you are unsatisfied with your pro bono lawyer, see if you a bar association can refer you to someone who will work more effectively on your behalf for free. Whether you have money or not, ask friends and family to provide referrals to any specialists they know who can help defend you. Before meeting with anyone, check their disciplinary record online and make sure they are in good legal standing and entitled to practice.
Take as much as you can afford when interviewing criminal justice attorneys. You’re looking for a lawyer with specific experience helping you with the kinds of charges you are facing. Be careful of lawyers who seem to be offering you guarantees they will be unable to follow through on. Be prepared to answer any questions and have any documentation that will help you construct a strong defense.
Some questions to ask criminal justice attorneys:
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of my case?
• What kind of legal outcome can I realistically accept?
• How long could my case take to resolve?
• Should I prepare for court or be prepared to accept a plea bargain?
If your lawyer is not working pro bono, get a detailed estimate of how much their services will cost. Make sure to get this writing: good lawyer-client relationships begin with both sides committing in documented form to a specific plan of action.