The criminal process involves action by the State against one or more individuals accused of engaging in unlawful conduct and can involve the loss of liberty. The State is the accuser or prosecutor and the accused is the defendant. There are special rules of procedure and evidence that govern these proceedings, including a number of constitutional guarantees that afford the accused with due process and certain inalienable rights. These types of matters can be quite serious and licensed and experienced attorneys are the persons in the best position to assist defendants in dealing with them.
1. Constitutional Rights. The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution contain a number of protections and guaranteed rights for citizens, including the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront one’s accusers, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to remain silent, and the presumption of innocence until one’s guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
2. Probable Cause. In order for a police officer to arrest someone, the officer must have sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime. This is known as “probable cause” and such cause also is required to search a vehicle or home.
3. Warrants and Arrests. A warrant is issued by a judge and allows the State to undertake certain investigative activities. In order for a warrant to be issued, a judge must determine that probable cause exists. Police officers have the right to arrest persons whom they suspect of committing a crime in their presence. In some matters where it is unclear to a judge if a warrant should be issued or if a matter is criminal or civil, the court may order a warrant hearing in order to allow each of the parties involved to present facts that will allow it to make an appropriate determination.
4. Accusations and Indictments. An accusation is a formal charge of violations of the misdemeanor laws of this state. An indictment is a formal charge of violations of the felony laws of this state as determined by a grand jury after evidence has been presented to it by the State. Some criminal cases are disposed of by the accused and the State without the necessity of a grand jury indictment.
5. Arraignment. Arraignment is the formal process by which persons accused of committing crimes answer the charges made against them. The possible pleas to be made by defendants at arraignment are “guilty”, “not guilty” or “no contest”.
6. Pleas. A plea of “not guilty” entitles an accused to a trial by a jury. A plea of “guilty” or “no contest” is used when an accused does not wish to contest the charges and is ready to accept the punishment to be determined by the Court.
7. Diversion Programs and Conditional Discharges. Under certain circumstances, first-time offenders may be eligible for a diversion program or a conditional discharge of their offenses which allows them to be punished for their infractions but will not cause a permanent record of the offense as long as they complete the requirements of the particular programs or discharge requirements. Accused parties are encouraged to discuss and explore this possibility with the State.
8. Punishment. Punishment for criminal offenses is determined by a judge within certain standards provided by the law. In misdemeanor matters, punishments can range from a year in jail to a $1,000.00 fine, or both. In felony cases, punishment can range from fines to imprisonment for life or, in extreme cases, a sentence of death.
9. Plea Bargaining. Plea bargaining is a process through which the State and the accused can determine an mutually acceptable punishment for a particular crime, with the accused being offered a certain punishment in exchange for a plea of “guilty” or “no contest”. A plea bargains is presented to a judge, who may determine either to accept or reject it. While judges generally accept pleas negotiated by the parties, they are not required to do so.
10. First Offender Status and Expungement. Under certain circumstances, first-time offenders may be eligible to have the offenses for which they have been convicted to be expunged from their records if they meet certain eligibility requirements. Accused parties are encouraged to discuss and explore this possibility with the State.