If you are charged with a crime, your first question might be whether you need an attorney to represent you. If this is a concern, then consider what a criminal conviction means in terms of its consequences before you make a decision.
A criminal violation carries the potential for:
- A substantial fine
- Loss of certain rights which can include possession of a firearm, drivers license,
A conviction becomes public record accessible to the following:
- Background check companies
Many people build their own houses, repair their own cars or sell or buy their own homes. A little bit of research can help those who have certain skills do very well in these areas. For those who have some knowledge of the court system, or who may have gleaned some “insight” from watching courtroom dramas on television, representing yourself if charged with a crime may not seem that difficult.
But while a mistake in house building or repairing a car can usually be readily remedied, a mistake at any stage of your criminal proceeding can be much more costly and more difficult to rectify, if at all. In other words, the criminal justice system is not so forgiving.
A criminal proceeding can be complex with rules of court, procedure and evidence that must be followed. Pre-trial discovery is crucial in obtaining all incriminating and exculpatory evidence from the prosecution as well as understanding what defenses are available and how and when to use them. Motions before the court regarding the introduction or exclusion of evidence must be made at early stages in your case or you could be at a severe disadvantage if you fail to make them or are unable to present convincing and relevant arguments on your behalf.
If there are evidentiary or other hearings where witnesses are presented, including a trial, you must know how to examine and cross-examine witnesses, introduce evidence, when and how to object to evidence and how to present arguments in your behalf. If experts are used, you must know what questions to ask and how to discredit them or damning testimony that an experienced lawyer could have had excluded will be heard and considered by a jury. Judges may give you some leeway on courtroom decorum but not when it comes to the rules that all lawyers must follow.
More importantly, if you do not object to errors made at trial by the judge, your failure to properly object at the time can result in a biased jury or one that will consider adverse evidence or jury instructions that should have been excluded and curtail your inability to raise the error on appeal.
The penalties for a criminal offense are generally found in the criminal code but the sentence that a judge imposes can vary widely depending on a number of factors. Having a criminal attorney who is intimately familiar with the facts and circumstances of your case, your background, nature of the offense and the court where your case is venued is vital to knowing what you are facing, what defenses are available to you and the steps to obtain a satisfactory resolution.
Many sentences can be enhanced by aggravating factors or lessened by those in mitigation. Aggravating factors include severe physical harm to a victim, having a prior felony conviction, use of a firearm or age of the victim. Mitigating factors include a defendant who was abused as a child or by a spouse, the presence of an emotional disorder, the lack of previous criminal conduct or lack of substantial involvement in the crime, all of which must be timely and adequately presented in court. You may need to introduce certain evidence or even an expert to support your argument for mitigating your culpability that your attorney can locate and prepare for your defense.
In some cases, your attorney can present alternative sentencing options for which you qualify wherein your charges can be dismissed so that you will not have a criminal record if you successfully complete all court-ordered conditions.
In matters where you are accused of a sex crime, a conviction or plea can lead to your registering as a sex offender for life. If you are an immigrant, you face possible deportation if you plead to an offense without fully understanding the consequences. In many of these cases, these consequences can be avoided by a competent and skilled attorney.
As indicated above, pre-trial discovery and preparation is key in most cases. Your attorney or a trained investigator can visit the crime scene, examine the evidence against you and interview prosecution witnesses. It is not unusual for a savvy investigator to obtain a witness statement where the person’s recollection of events is not so clear and reasonable doubt established. Also, the courts have deadlines for presenting motions regarding the introduction or exclusion or certain evidence that must also be presented in a certain form.
Finally, a prosecutor will take your case more seriously if you have a seasoned and established criminal defense attorney representing you. You have more opportunity for a reasonable disposition of your case, including dismissal, a plea to a lesser charge, an alternative sentence or one where jail or prison time is suspended.
If you can show that your financial resources or assets are below a certain level, then the court must appoint an attorney to represent you. You have a right under the 6th Amendment to the US Constitution to the assistance of legal representation in felony matters and in misdemeanors where jail time is possible. All California counties have public defender offices or lawyers who are appointed by the court to represent defendants at no charge to them.
When someone is arrested and appears at the arraignment, the court asks if they have legal counsel or can afford one. If not, the defendant has to complete a statement attesting to income, debts and assets. You can be employed and still qualify for representation. If you do qualify, the court will appoint a public defender to represent you from arraignment to disposition, including trial.
Public defenders only handle criminal matters. They can be very experienced and many have tried dozens or even hundreds of trials in the court where you are appearing. They have access to investigators and researchers who can assist them so that you can be adequately
Many public defenders are excellent and hard-working attorneys who are respected by the prosecutors and judges with whom they work daily. However, most public defenders have overwhelming caseloads that prevent them from giving their clients the time and attention that private counsel can provide.
Public defenders are under pressure to move or reduce their caseload since they receive new cases on a weekly or even daily basis. Accordingly, their attention is on those matters that have the best opportunity for dismissal or that require increased focus given the nature of the crime, its victim or its notoriety. These cases get the benefit of the limited resources most public defender offices are forced to contend with.
Also, many of these lawyers are freshly out of law school and lack the skills, knowledge and respect of judges or prosecutors that private counsel can usually offer to any defendant.
On the other hand, many private criminal defense attorneys were once public defenders or even prosecutors who have years of experience from handling all types of cases and defendants. They often have the resources lacking in many public defender offices that are needed to adequately defend you. This includes experienced investigators and researchers, experts who can examine blood, alcohol or drug tests, fingerprints and other evidence in a case that may be used to incriminate you.
Private attorneys also have the time to meet with you, answer your questions and concerns and to focus on your case. You also have a choice when it comes to retaining an attorney with whom you are comfortable, is highly experienced and recommended and in whom you place your trust to do the best job possible.