If you’ve been accused of a serious crime, your chances of success may depend on your lawyer’s ability to effectively navigate through the criminal justice system. The following is an overview of that system, along with answers to some of the most frequently asked criminal law questions.
Q: Should I talk to the police?
A: It’s often in your best interests to avoid making a statement or signing anything. If the police are investigating you, you may or may not be aware of it. At some point, they may ask you to come into the station and give a statement. Instead of talking to the police, hire a criminal defense attorney. An attorney can intercede on your behalf, talk to detectives, and get valuable information which may result in charges not being filed.
Most importantly, an attorney can answer your criminal law questions and prevent you from giving a statement that the District Attorney may ultimately use against you at trial.
Q: Can police arrest me without evidence of my guilt?
A: Only if they have probable cause to believe you’ve committed the crime. Once they have probable cause, they can arrest you in a number of ways:
They can make a lawful arrest. If you’re arrested and are in custody, your arraignment generally must occur within 48 hours;
If they believe you’re not a risk to flee the area, they may submit your case to a District Attorney’s office who in turn will send you a letter in the mail asking you to appear for an arraignment; or
They may ask you to voluntarily surrender yourself at the police station.
Q: What happens at an arraignment?
A: Your initial arraignment will be your first appearance in court whether or not you’re in custody. At the arraignment, your attorney will receive the complaint stating the charges that have been filed against you and any police reports on your case. If you’re in custody, your attorney will have the opportunity to argue bail.
Q: What is a preliminary hearing?
A: If you were charged with a felony, your next appearance will likely be a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the judge will determine whether or not there’s probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and, if so, whether or not you committed that crime. Your attorney will use the preliminary hearing to dispute the evidence against you, lock down the testimony of key witnesses, and determine inconsistencies in the District Attorney’s case.
Q: What happens after the preliminary hearing?
A: If the judge determines that there are enough facts to believe that you committed the crime, your case will be sent to the appropriate court for trial. Once there, you again will be arraigned on the charges to be filed against you. These charges may differ from your initial arraignment. This is because the District Attorney is free to file any charges they believe were proven at the preliminary hearing, including charges that were not in the original complaint.
Q: What is a pretrial conference?
A: Your next date in court will be the pretrial conference. At the pretrial conference, your lawyer will argue pretrial motions, such as motions to suppress or exclude evidence from trial and motions to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence.
Your attorney can also discuss a plea bargain with the District Attorney. A plea bargain may result in you pleading guilty to a lesser charge in order to obtain a lighter sentence or reducing a charge from a serious offense to a simple felony, or wobbler offense. Generally, a wobbler offense is one that has the possibility of “wobbling down” to a misdemeanor.
Q: What happens at trial?
A: If no disposition is reached on your case, it will be set for trial. The typical stages of a trial include selecting a jury, presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and making closing statements. After all of this, the jury will deliberate and return a verdict. In some states, a mistrial will be declared if the jury doesn’t reach a unanimous verdict or if the jury is at a standstill.