If you are like many Americans, you probably seldom (if ever) think about criminal defense law.
You are a law abiding citizen living in a low crime area, so it doesn’t affect you, right?
Even if you live in a region with low crime rates and always adhere to the letter of the law, there is no guarantee that you will never be involved in a crime or be falsely accused of committing one.
And if you happen to find yourself in these circumstances, it is of the utmost importance that you know your rights and the role that a criminal defense attorney plays in the legal process from arrest to sentencing.
Read further as we detail key information that you need to protect your rights in the chance that the hypothetical becomes reality.
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Worst case scenario: Three key things to know if you are accused of a crime
In her article “12 Things To Know If You’re Falsely Accused,” author Michelle Gesse discusses what to do if you are wrongly charged with a crime.
In the article, Gesse emphasizes the importance of planning for situations like this, stating, “Be forearmed with any strategy or knowledge, so that you are not left floundering, completely at the mercy of ‘the system.’”
And we couldn’t agree more.
No matter how unlikely you think it may be that you will be wrapped up in criminal proceedings, it is always wise to give some thought to how you would (and should) respond if you happen to be confronted by police or receive a call from a friend or family member that has been accused of a crime.
Below are a few of the most important things to keep in mind and learn more about, so that you can be prepared if the worst ever happens.
- One of the most important things to keep in mind if you are falsely accused of a crime is to avoid a false sense of security that comes from knowing you are innocent of the crime you are accused of.
- If you find yourself in this situation, it is critical to understand the basic workings of the criminal justice system. For example, an arrest does not mean you’ve been declared guilty, but is merely a step in the criminal justice process. The system gives you the chance to defend yourself and prove your innocence.
- Another factor to be aware of is that the system is composed of several key-players, including law enforcers, and prosecution and defense attorneys. The latter can provide you with all the legal assistance you will need to clear your name.
Four facts about the Constitution and your rights
Being accused of a crime is a very serious issue — regardless of the gravity of the offense — as such accusations threaten your fundamental right to freedom.
Fortunately, in The United States, the law always seeks to ensure that the accused is protected until such time that they are either convicted or acquitted of a crime.
If you happen to be accused of a crime or felony, these are the four most important rights to be aware of:
1. You are innocent until proven guilty
This is perhaps the most important right of all defendants, and is in fact one of the paramount canons of democracy.
Through this rule, you cannot suffer any of the penalties of the crime you allegedly committed until a jury pronounces you guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
This also means that should the jury be split in their decision (hence the presence of reasonable doubt), you cannot be convicted.
2. You are protected against self-incrimination
According to the Fifth Amendment’s rule against self-incrimination, an accused does not have to testify in their own defense, nor do they have to answer every question posed by a law enforcement official.
This protects defendants from being subjected to mental, emotional, or even physical force that compels them to be a witness against themselves or to get a confession.
3. You have the right to an attorney
Thanks to the Sixth Amendment, you don’t have to defend yourself in court, nor should you have to confess or testify to anything without an attorney present.
According to a Yahoo! Voices article by contributor Steve Thompson the right to an attorney means:
“In the interest of giving each suspect a fair trial (another right) he or she is guaranteed adequate legal counsel.
If the suspect is found to be unable to afford an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender.
This right is especially important because very few private citizens are experts in law, which means that they are not capable of providing their own defense.”
4. You have the right to know your charges
This is another constitutional right which stems not only from the very principles behind democracy, but also international laws on human rights.
According to the Sixth Amendment no person accused of a crime should be kept in the dark as to the very “nature and cause of the accusation” laid against him.
The importance of criminal defense attorneys
What is a criminal defense attorney?
In our field of work, we are often asked what, exactly, a criminal defense attorney does, and how they differ from other types of attorneys.
Criminal defense attorneys represent individuals or organizations that are accused of crimes in the court system and are specially trained to handle a wide range of criminal cases including everything from minor misdemeanors to serious felonies.
Typically defense attorneys represent the accused through all phases of the criminal justice process, including everything from the arrest to the investigation, to sentencing, to filing an appeal.
Criminal defense lawyers can also focus their practice on a specific criminal defense area.
For example, some attorneys have practices dedicated to defending individuals charged with DUIs or drug violations.
Why are criminal defense lawyers important?
Another question that we often hear is, “are criminal defense lawyers really important?” or “Do I really need to hire a criminal defense attorney?”
And the answer is always a resounding “YES.”
This is because criminal law is extremely complex and involves both state and federal laws and regulations.
Each state has their own specific legislation regarding crimes (as well as sentencing) which can make it extremely difficult for someone that is not experienced with the criminal justice system to fully understand.
According to NOLO.com, “Defendants charged with crimes are almost always best served by obtaining a lawyer.”
And although individuals in the United States to have the right of self representation, it is estimated that less than one percent of defendants represent themselves in criminal cases.
What you can expect from a good defense attorney
Whether you are facing serious penalties or expecting prison time, it is always best to hire a criminal defense attorney.
According to Findlaw.com, “the best criminal defense lawyer for you may be able to spot certain arguments and factors that could mitigate or even negate any potential crime.”
Simply put, a good criminal defense attorney should be able to provide you with an in-depth assessment of your case.
If you are looking for a quality defense attorney that will fight for your rights, here are a few key qualities to look for:
- An attorney that is willing to collaborate with you and the prosecutor to negotiate plea bargains, which may reduce your potential sentence.
- If you are thinking of pleading guilty to some or all of the charges, you should look for an attorney that will work with the District Attorney as to an appropriate sentence.
- An effective lawyer should also know how to help you cope mentally and emotionally throughout the process.
- A qualified defense attorney should be able to fairly anticipate where the case is leading and provide you with a reality check.
- If taking a matter to trial, a criminal attorney should ensure you are aware of potential consequences, since it may complicate the situation.
- Your lawyer should be willing to spend time and effort on the case, like gathering sufficient evidence and statements from witnesses that are going to be summoned by the prosecution.
Whether you have been caught up in criminal litigation, have a close family member dealing with a criminal case, or are simply curious about your rights, it is never too early (or late) to learn more about your rights and the important role that defense attorneys play in the criminal justice system.
Knowledge is power, so be sure to arm yourself with knowledge before compromising your rights.
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