The uncertainty that a person encounters when he faces the criminal justice system can be overwhelming. It is important that you have a basic understanding of the steps that may occur in your case.
In some situations, a person arrested without a warrant will appear in court at a hearing at which the judge determines whether probable cause exists. The judge will review an affidavit prepared by the police officers to determine whether probable cause exists. There is no opportunity for the defendant to present evidence at this stage. If the court finds that probable cause does exist, the defendant will be ordered to return to court at a specific time (normally 72 hours).
The issue of the bond may be addressed at the probable cause hearing. Your lawyer will want to know certain things about you that he can relay to the court which might indicate a likelihood that you will re-appear in court. For example, your lawyer may want to know where you live (and how long you’ve lived there), where you work and whether your family lives in the area.
At the initial hearing the judge will advise you what charges have been filed against you, and will explain your rights. Again, the issue of bond may be addressed at the initial hearing.
If you tell the judge that you intend to hire a lawyer, the court will generally set a time for you to return with your lawyer. If you do not have money to hire a lawyer, you should request a public defender.
In most cases, it is advisable to enter a plea of not guilty at the initial hearing. This tells the court that at this point in time you are going to require the prosecutor to prove your guilt. Some people believe it is dishonest to enter a plea of not guilty when they know they are guilty. This is not the case. In fact, the court will automatically enter a plea of not guilty in felony cases unless you insist otherwise.
Your attorney will request from the prosecutor a list of witnesses, statements and notice of any physical evidence that the prosecutor intends to use against you. Your attorney may want to take depositions of the prosecutor’s witnesses. A deposition is an opportunity for your attorney to question the witness under oath prior to trial. Your attorney may also want to do his own investigation which may include a private investigator.
In some cases, your lawyer may want to file a motion to challenge the legality of the evidence obtained against you or to challenge the procedures that are being employed. For example, if your attorney believes that an illegal search was conducted, he may file a Motion to Suppress. This is an argument to the court that the evidence was obtained in an illegal manner. Generally, evidence that is illegally obtained is suppressed (that is, not allowed into evidence).
In some cases it is in the defendant’s best interest to negotiate an agreement to plead guilty to the charge, or to some lesser charge. Often a favorable plea bargain can be reached as the result of an aggressive defense. If your lawyer is able to uncover some weakness in the prosecution’s case, they may be agreeable to reducing the charge or agreeing to a relatively light sentence. Many cases involve substance abuse. Your lawyer may suggest to you very early in the case that drug/alcohol rehab would be beneficial.
Not every case goes to a jury trial, however, every good criminal defense lawyer looks forward to a jury trial when there is a question whether the prosecutor can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury consist of six to twelve jurors who are chosen by the lawyers from a larger pool of jurors. A jury trial generally occurs several months after charges have been filed.
In some cases it is advisable to waive jury trial, and allow the judge to decide guilt or innocence. For example, when the defense is based on something of a technicality it may be better to have been filed.
In the event of a guilty plea or a conviction after trial, a sentencing hearing will be conducted. If a plea agreement exists for a particular sentence, the only issue to be decided at sentencing is whether the court will accept the plea bargain or not. A high percentage of plea bargains are accepted, but there are times when a judge refuses to accept the agreement. In that situation, the guilty plea is withdrawn and the matter is set for trial or further plea bargaining.
When sentencing is left up to the judge, your lawyer can argue for a lesser sentence based upon your character, history and conduct while the case is pending. There is a broad range of options available at sentencing. The court may impose probation, house arrest, work release or prison time. It is often helpful to find creative, innovative sentencing options for the judge (for example, a drug treatment program rather than prison).
If you lose at trial or you believe your sentence is excessive, you have the right to appeal. An appeal is a written argument to an appellate court in Indianapolis. In an appeal you might argue that you did not receive a fair trial or that there was insufficient evidence for conviction (among other arguments). Successful appeals are not common. However, when successful, you may be entitled to a new trial or you may be set free.
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