Being arrested and charged with a crime is a stressful and confusing experience. One minute you are free and the next you may find yourself placed in handcuffs and transported to jail for processing.
During this period of mental and physical exhaustion, prosecutors will likely try to get you to plead guilty to a crime or make statements to incriminate yourself before you’ve had an opportunity to speak with an attorney.
The key to protecting your rights and defending yourself against criminal charges is knowing how to handle this type of situation responsibly. At the Shah Law Firm, we fight every day to make sure our clients’ constitutional rights are protected. We compiled the following guide to help you know what to expect if you ever find yourself accused of a crime.
1: Taking Appropriate Actions at the Time of Your Arrest
It’s important to remain compliant and calm when you realize you are about to be arrested and taken to jail. Once you’ve been read your rights, don’t fight or try to talk your way out of the arrest.
Exercise Your Right to Remain Silent: You have a constitutionally protected right to remain silent when you are arrested and exercising that right is a crucial first step. Anything you say to officers can be used as evidence against you. What may seem like inconsequential information that you provide to law enforcement at the time could end up having a major impact on your case.
While it is important to remain compliant and polite when you are arrested, this does not mean you have to answer all the officers’ questions. If you are being questioned before you’ve been arrested or your rights read, ask the officers if you are being placed under arrest. Don’t let anyone gather evidence against you before you’ve been read your Miranda rights.
If the officers answer yes, that you are being arrested, it’s time to exercise your right to remain silent.
2: Ask to Speak with a Lawyer
You have the right to have an attorney present while you are being questioned. Prosecutors or law enforcement may ask if you’d like to waive your Miranda rights and answer their questions. This is usually not a good decision.
Typically, these questions are not being asked because they want to determine whether or not you should be in custody. They are being asked because law enforcement already believes you are guilty and are attempting to gather evidence against you. Never waive your Miranda rights if you are facing serious criminal charges and always ask to speak with a lawyer.
3: Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer
You need a lawyer who can help guide you through the criminal justice system and ensure every decision you make is in your best interests. Ideally, you will choose an attorney who focuses exclusively on defending people who have been charged with a crime. This will help reassure you that the person representing you knows how the criminal justice system works and has a proven track record of helping people just like you.
4: Only Discuss the Details of Your Case with Your Attorney
The details of your case should be between yourself and your attorney. Don’t go into specifics about your case with friends, family or anyone else. If your case goes to trial, the people close to you may be subpoenaed and forced to testify against you.
5: Listen to Your Lawyer
There are several ways a criminal defense case may play out. Your attorney will consider all the facts and carefully evaluate all the evidence available. Several things may happen.
Dismissal or Dropped Charges: Your attorney may be able to make the argument that there’s not enough evidence to convict you if the case goes to trial. Or perhaps evidence gathered against you was not done properly and would not be admissible in court. This could lead to prosecutors dropping the charges, or a judge dismissing the case. In this situation, you would no longer be facing that criminal charge.
The odds of having your charges dropped or case dismissed improve dramatically if you have exercised your right to remain silent and secured the services of a highly skilled defense attorney.
Plea Agreement: Your attorney might conclude that the evidence against you is strong enough that you would be convicted if the case goes to trial and recommend a plea agreement. Or maybe you realize that you’ve made a mistake and want to put things right so you can move on with your life with as little impact as possible.
In this situation, your attorney will negotiate on your behalf to reach an agreement. You may be able to avoid jail time completely, have a jail term lessened or have your criminal charges reduced to a lesser offense.
Trial: Your attorney may also recommend taking your case to trial to defend you before a jury. In this situation, your lawyer will gather evidence, prepare your case and take part in jury selection to ensure you get a fair trial. Your attorney should have plenty of trial experience and be committed fighting on your behalf.
Every Second Counts
Things happen quickly when you are arrested and placed in jail. This makes it even more crucial to speak with an attorney immediately.
Your initial appearance should come within 24 hours of your arrest if you are being held in custody. Once you’ve contacted a criminal defense attorney, this person will help guide your through the first hearing and explain your options.
During this hearing you will appear before a magistrate or justice of the peace who will inform you of the charges against you. The magistrate will also set the conditions of release by setting a bail amount or releasing you without bail. There may also be other conditions associated with release, such as being ordered not to leave the state or having no contact with an alleged victim or witness. A date for a preliminary hearing will also be set.
During the preliminary hearing prosecutors will have to show that officers had probable cause to make an arrest.
This hearing is recorded by a court reporter. After the state has presented its evidence against you, a justice of the peace will determine whether there is sufficient probable cause or dismiss the charges. Your defense attorney may also have the opportunity offer evidence on your behalf and argue that probable cause does not exist. This is only allowed if the justice of the peace determines the evidence would refute the prosecution’s evidence.
It’s important to note that the burden of proof is much lower during the preliminary hearing. While prosecutors need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, they only need to show probable cause during the preliminary hearing. So even if it is ruled that your case should go to trial, that doesn’t mean you’ll be convicted.
If it is determined that officers had sufficient probable cause to arrest you, the case will be bound over for trial and moved to Superior Court.
You also have the right to waive the preliminary hearing. Consult with your attorney to determine whether this is the right decision for your case.
This is a short hearing that is held before a court commissioner. During arraignment, charges are once again read to the defendant who will once again will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you are pleading not guilty, the case will be assigned to a judge and a trial date set. The conditions of release can be reviewed or changed during arraignment.
Anyone charged with a crime has the right to a trial. Trials are held before a judge and a jury. Juries are comprised of eight to 12 people who will ultimately determine whether a defendant is innocent or guilty.
Jury selection occurs before the trial takes place. The defense and prosecuting attorneys may submit questions for potential jurors to determine if they will weigh the facts objectively. The jurors selected during this process will eventually hear your case.
Before trial begins, the judge will hear a series of pretrial motions. This process will determine what evidence will be admissible at trial along with other procedural issues.
During a criminal trial, attorneys form both sides will provide opening statements, call witnesses, cross examine witnesses and present evidence to the jury. At the end of these proceedings the attorneys will make their closing arguments before the jury.
The jury then goes into deliberations to decide the verdict. Deliberations can last anywhere from a few hours, to a few days and even weeks. When a verdict is reached, it will be read before the judge.
If the defendant is found guilty, a judge will impose the appropriate sentence. A not guilty verdict will result in the defendant going free, unless that person is convicted on some counts, but found not guilty of others.
Going through the criminal justice system can be a confusing and terrifying experience. Decisions that you make at any point in the process can have life altering consequences down the line. Don’t make any decisions or sacrifice your rights without seeking the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney.