At some time in your life you may find yourself having to appear before a criminal court. If you haven’t had contact with the criminal justice system before, the process can be intimidating. It may seem that the deck is stacked against you, or that the system doesn’t care about your version of events. In truth, however, the legal system is like a machine: it works a certain way, and if you can position yourself to take advantage of the way it works then you will benefit. If you ignore the way it works, you may be frustrated.
Criminal cases can be initiated in several different ways. If a police officer sees you committing a crime then he can arrest you. A criminal case can also be started by a grand jury voting to issue an indictment. In some states, civilians can appear before a magistrate and inform the magistrate about a crime and the magistrate will issue a criminal summons or a warrant. In still other cases, the state prosecutor can file a criminal information charging certain crimes (normally misdemeanors) without going through the above processes. In any case, no matter how it is initiated, a defendant who is charged with a crime will normally look forward to trial.
Before the day of trial, a defendant is well advised to locate an attorney. Trial procedures are not normally known to civilians and an experienced attorney can help someone understand the charges against him or her, prepare a defense, present the defense in court, and understand the outcome of the case once it is over.
An attorney will normally demand that the prosecutor turn over certain documents and records before the trial. This will help the attorney to understand what will be presented by the state at the trial so that he or she can prepare the defense. An attorney may file a motion before the trial date objecting to certain evidence being used against his or her client. For example, it is not unusual for an attorney to object to evidence being presented that was the result of an illegal search or seizure, or that was seized as part of a legal search that exceeded the proper scope of the warrant that authorized it. An attorney may also issue subpoenas to witnesses to assure that they show up for court. It is a common experience that witnesses promise to appear in court on a trial date, but get cold feet at the last minute and don’t show up. Almost everyone has something better to do than go to court. For this reason, the Constitution provides that a defendant can have the court issue a subpoena ordering a witness to appear for a trial. In the event the person ignores the subpoena, the court may issue a body attachment – like an arrest warrant – directing the sheriff to arrest the person and hold them until the next court date.
Most criminal trials are misdemeanors, or less serious charges, and most misdemeanor trials are before a judge. On the trial date a defendant may appear in a courtroom with 30 or more other cases. Sometimes there is a long line to speak with the prosecutor before trial and register with the clerk. Often, the judge doesn’t come out until quite some time has passed after the scheduled beginning.
The vast majority of cases scheduled for any particular day do not result in a trial. A sizeable number of cases are passed until a future court date for various reasons. Sometimes the prosecutor hasn’t given the discovery to the defense attorney in enough time for him to prepare. In other cases, the state may need more time to prepare its case. Some cases may be dropped if an essential witness is not present. Many cases will be resolved by the defendant pleading guilty to one of the charges against him or her.
A guilty plea normally takes longer than a continuance request. This is because the court must make sure that the defendant understands the nature of the charges against him or her, that the plea is being entered into freely and voluntarily, and that there is in fact a valid factual basis for the charges. Believe it or not, some people will plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit. This may be because they don’t understand the nature and elements of the offense and are just going along with their lawyer, or because they are confused about what happened. The court cannot legally accept such a plea. Once a plea is accepted by the court, the judge will listen to both lawyers argue about what should be the proper penalty. The judge will also offer the defendant a chance to speak before issuing a sentence.
If a party maintains his or her innocence, or is unable to work out a deal with the state, the case may go to trial. This is normal. It isn’t necessarily something to be feared. A trial normally will begin with the prosecution, since the prosecution always has the burden of proof. The prosecutor may give an opening statement explaining to the court what he or she expects the evidence to prove, or he or she may just call the first witness. The defense attorney also has the option of giving a statement in the beginning or waiting till later. The first witness in most criminal cases is usually a police officer – the first officer to arrive on the scene. He may describe his duty assignment, his experience with the police, and what he was doing at the time. A police officer, like any witness, can only testify within the rules of evidence. The rules of evidence are designed to increase the accuracy and reliability of trials by excluding certain kinds of testimony that by experience the courts have found to be unreliable. One example of this is hearsay. Another example is evidence that is not relevant to any issue that is before the court, regardless of how interesting it may be.
The state normally calls its witnesses and then rests. At this point, the defense is allowed to make a motion asking the judge to end the case and find in favor of the defendant if the state hasn’t submitted evidence on all of the elements of the offenses charged. It happens more often than one might think. If all of the charges are thrown out then the case is over and the defendant has won. However, if none or only some of the charges are thrown out then the trial continues.
The defendant is not required to put on any witnesses or evidence. In fact, in most cases they do not. But in some cases the defendant will want to have witnesses (perhaps under subpoena) testify and put on a case. The defendant may want to testify for himself or herself. This is an important strategic decision that needs to be made with the help of counsel. The defendant is not required to testify, and if he or she does not then the court will not consider that in rendering a decision. However, if a defendant does want to testify then the Constitution guarantees him or her that right. This is a personal right of the defendant and not one that the lawyer, like a criminal defense lawyer Rockville MD relies on, or judge can make for him.
When any witness testifies, both the state and the defense can question him. The judge can also ask questions. Any documents or evidence will be received by the clerk and given an identification number.
After all the witnesses have testified, the court will usually allow each attorney to make a closing statement. The closing statement is the attorney’s last chance to argue for whatever outcome he or she thinks the court should adopt. The state goes first because it has the burden of proof. The defense goes second, and the state is normally given a short chance to rebut anything said by the defense attorney.
Finally, the judge will issue the decision of the court. If the court finds the defendant not guilty, then the defendant is free to leave. If, on the other hand, the court finds the defendant guilty of one or more charges, then the court will impose a sentence. The sentence may include a period of jail time, a period of probation, a fine, community service, alcohol or drug classes, payment of court costs, restitution, or other requirements in light of the crime of conviction. Most people do not go to jail for misdemeanors, but it can happen in some cases.
With a little advance preparation, most misdemeanor cases can be resolved happily for the defendant. A defendant should hire an attorney well in advance of trial, dress respectfully for the court, speak clearly and directly when asked a question, and show up on time. By following these steps, a better result is likely.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from the Law Office of Daniel J. Wright for their insights into criminal defense.