What is Criminal Defense Law?
Criminal defense law includes all the state and federal laws that govern criminal cases and guarantee rights to criminal defendants. This includes the process of criminal cases in state and federal courts and rights such as representation and an impartial jury. Criminal defense lawyers specialize in defending people accused of crimes.
What Are My Rights as a Criminal Defendant?
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that the government cannot conduct unreasonable searches and seizures to gather evidence against you. The Sixth Amendment guarantees specific rights for anyone charged with a crime:
- You have a right to a public trial without an unreasonable delay.
- You have a right to have legal representation, even if you cannot afford it.
- You have a right to an impartial jury.
- You have a right to know who is accusing you of a crime.
- You have a right to know the charges against you and the existing evidence.
The Fifth Amendment also addresses the rights of criminal defendants. It states that you cannot be prosecuted for a crime a second time. This is also known as double jeopardy. It also guarantees that you cannot be punished twice for a crime. This only holds under federal or state law, not both. You can be prosecuted for the same crime at each level.
What Are the Steps in a Criminal Case?
How a criminal case proceeds depends on whether it is in the federal courts or state courts. In general, the steps and process are very similar, but details may differ:
- Arrest and Bail.
Police can arrest individuals if they witness a criminal act, have probable cause, or have a warrant. The suspect may be granted bail immediately or after a hearing. They must post bail and appear at all court proceedings.
The defendant appears in front of a judge, who reads charges against them. The defendant can then plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The judge also sets bail, if necessary, and future court dates.
During discovery, both the prosecution and the defense team prepare their cases. They talk to witnesses, gather evidence, and share information.
- Plea Bargaining.
Many criminal cases end with a plea bargain. The defendant may plead guilty to the charges and receive a sentence or plead guilty to lesser charges to get a lesser sentence. The prosecution is often willing to do this to save the courts time and money.
- Preliminary Hearing.
During the preliminary hearing, or a grand jury indictment in some cases, the court questions witnesses, and attorneys outline their cases. The point is to establish probable cause for a trial.
- Trial and Sentencing.
If there is sufficient evidence, it proceeds to a trial before a jury. Each side presents witnesses, evidence, and expert testimony. If the jury convicts the defendant, the judge considers several factors in determining an appropriate sentence.
The person convicted of a crime may choose to appeal that decision. This is a request to have a higher court review the case. That court can reverse the decision or ask for a retrial.
What Are Examples of Criminal Defenses?
Criminal defense lawyers work with their clients to find evidence and build a case to prove their innocence or get a lesser sentence if convicted. They argue in negotiations or in court using criminal defenses. Some of the common criminal defenses include:
- Innocence. The defense attorney can use the facts and evidence to show that the defendant is not guilty. For instance, if they can prove an alibi or that the defendant was not at the scene of the crime.
- Insanity. An insanity defense claims the accused was not in the right state of mind to judge their actions. This isn’t easy to prove and is not often used.
- Self-defense. A defendant may claim self-defense in a violent crime if they felt the victim threatened their life or the life of another.
- Coercion. The defendant may have felt forced into committing a crime because of threats or physical intimidation by another.
- Consent. Often used in sexual crimes, the defendant claims that the victim consented to the action.
- Entrapment. If the police of an agency of the government induced the defendant into committing the crime, it might be dismissed as entrapment.
What Should I Do if Accused of a Crime?
First, know your rights. If you are arrested for a crime, you have a right to remain silent and have a lawyer represent you. You may choose to say nothing and refrain from answering questions until your lawyer or a public defender is there.
Consult with a lawyer immediately. Tell them all the details of what happened so they can advocate for you. Even if you committed a crime, they must act with your best interests in mind and cannot use information you provide without your permission. Be honest and open so they can help you.
Talk to your lawyer about the possibility of bail and your options. You may have to go through questioning with the police, but you can talk to your lawyer first so they can advise you as to what to answer and what not to answer.
If you get released on bail, keep in contact with your lawyer and show up for all court proceedings on time. You will face more penalties if you are late or do not show up.
Criminal defense is an important area of the law, both for convicting criminals and exonerating innocent defendants. If you find yourself in this difficult situation, let a criminal defense lawyer help you right from the beginning.