Navigating the criminal justice system can be confusing. Your freedom, money and good name are all on the line. The right to a lawyer is one of the most important rights the constitution grants to those who are arrested or questioned because of what’s at stake.
It’s important to remember these key rights:
- You have the right to an attorney
- You have the right to be presumed innocent
- You have the right to a jury trial (in most cases)
- You have the right to testify on your behalf
- You have the right to remain silent
- You have the right to a speedy trial
- You have the right to confront any witnesses
- You have the rights to use the courts to compel a witness to testify
In most cases, criminal court procedures begin with an arraignment. The defendant — the person being charged with a crime — is read the charges against them. They’ll also be asked to acknowledge their identity, told what the possible punishment for the charge is and asked what their plea is (guilty, not guilty or no contest). Finally, bail will be set.
If it’s a misdemeanor case, the judge will set a tentative appearance schedule. This is followed by a pre-trial conference, though sometimes there is more than one conference. These conferences consist of plea negotiations and the identification of issues and witnesses. This moves on to a trial. If the defendant is found guilty, this continues to sentencing, during which the exact punishment is determined. Appeals are filed at this point and if they are successful, expungement (or sealing the criminal record) is a possibility.
In felony cases, preliminary hearings or pre-trial conferences (depending on the type of court hearing the case), determine and establish the same kinds of information as a misdemeanor pre-trial conference (though in some cases establishing probable cause and the identity of the defendant also takes place). Felony cases also carry longer jail times than misdemeanor trials, and death is also a possibility for punishment.
The constitution also grants anyone the right to represent themselves in a trial. However, with the procedures and laws involved — not to mention what’s at stake, which could not only be prison time, but the death penalty — most people avoid representing themselves. They seek out an experienced criminal defense lawyer.
A criminal defense lawyer not only knows the law, he knows the procedures and motions that keep the courts running. Nothing should be a surprise to an experienced criminal defense attorney, and their years of working in and around the courts means that they have a special rapport with judges, court staff an opposing lawyers that can only be built on decades of working around them. More importantly, a criminal defense lawyer should have trial experience, and lots of it. The stakes are too high to depend on anyone else.
Knowing all your options are in court, what your rights are and knowing you’re getting the best possible defense only comes from selecting an experienced criminal defense lawyer with real world trial experience.