If you've been charged with a crime, there are multiple phases in a timeline that have already occurred and that are yet to occur in the criminal process. If you've been charged, it means that either an investigation has occurred or that someone has made a complaint, or both, that led to an arrest warrant or criminal summons being issued.
If you've already been charged and given a court date, it means that the District Attorney has evidence against you that he plans to use in the process of prosecuting you.
One of the first steps that a criminal attorney will take is to request the discovery, or evidence, that the District Attorney plans to use against you. The attorney will then review that discovery to determine the strengths and weaknesses in the evidence against you and the merits of the overall case, and will then determine the risks associated with various defense strategies. Once this analysis is completed, the criminal lawyer will then discuss all of this information with you to determine which next steps to take.
Many people are worried that if they've been charged with a crime that there will automatically be prison time. However, prison time tends to be less common of a potential outcome in the majority of criminal cases, especially if the crime is non-violent and you have no or very little previous criminal history. Many cases can be resolved with community service or treatment programs and often sentences are probationary in nature rather than requiring active time. This of course depends predominantly on the charges against you and your criminal history.
THE DEFENSE ATTORNEY'S TOOLBOX
The best cases are the ones that aren't cases yet. This means that charges have not yet been pressed. If you know that you have committed a crime or you have been contacted by law enforcement investigating a crime, you are in a good position because it means evidence is still being gathered and a warrant has not yet been issued. This is usually the best and most important time to hire a criminal defense attorney.
Depending on the nature of the allegation, a criminal lawyer will sometimes be able to prevent criminal charges from being filed. A lawyer's job in pre-arrest representation is to manage the flow of information, if any, between you and law enforcement. The information gathering phase is critical in an investigation and making the right decisions about what information to share and not to share could mean the difference between being charged or not being charged, and worse, being found guilty or not-guilty.
Substantial assistance is affectionately known as snitching. While it has a bad rap, it is an extremely useful tool when dealing with criminal cases. If you are not yet charged with a crime and are being investigated, providing substantial assistance can actually prevent you from being charged in some cases. If a warrant cannot be prevented with substantial assistance, charges can often be minimized and/or consequences can be reduced, often significantly.
A lawyer's role in substantial assistance is brokering an agreement with law enforcement and/or the District Attorney to make sure you are getting the a good deal for the information you are going to provide. Unless there's a deal in place of some sort, any information you provide may not be credited to you and you may receive no benefit, so it's important that an attorney ensures an appropriate deal is agreed upon.
Work Contracts are often used when authorities are investigating a larger crime ring. Most commonly, they are used in drug cases where a person is asked to perform controlled buys of drugs to get a higher level person charged with a crime. Work contracts function similarly to substantial assistance deals in that they can either prevent charges or can minimize which charges are filed and the consequence of those charges.
If, upon review of your case information, the attorney determines that you have a very strong case and that State's case may be weak, one option is to fight the case by going to trial. The decision to go to trial is always the client's decision. Depending on the charge and the jurisdiction, this may mean a bench trial, meaning a single judge presides and makes a decision as to your guilt or innocence, or a jury trial, meaning a jury of usually 12 people decides guilt or innocence. A trial usually takes quite a bit of time to be scheduled – in North Carolina a felony trial may take as long as a year or more schedule and in others it may take two years or even more. This is based on the severity of the crime you've been charged with and how busy the court calendar is.
In trying a case, a defense attorney will work to highlight the favorable facts of your case and to show the State has not proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt. He will do this in the process of examining the defense witnesses and cross-examining the State's witnesses. The case will be summarized and important points highlighted in opening and closing arguments. Your attorney will also object to various components of the State's case based on trial procedures and the rule of law.
A trial can to be the most risky option for resolving a case. This is because a third party, meaning a judge or jury, is determining your guilt or innocence. Even in the strongest of cases, judges and juries have found defendants guilty in the face of significant reasonable doubt. While you usually have appeal rights of some sort if you feel you are wrongfully convicted, you must be aware when opting for a trial that you are leaving your fate open to someone else's decision making. This means that if you are found guilty, you are subject to whatever consequence the judge decides upon consistent with the law.
If the facts in your case are questionable and there is significant risk for conviction at trial and the potential consequences are too high, an alternative to resolving your case by trial is to accept a plea agreement. It is important to have a criminal lawyer, whether hired or court appointed, helping you with your case, but this is especially true if you are considering a plea.
An effective criminal lawyer will know if the plea you are being offered is a good plea or a bad one. If there are multiple charges, an experienced attorney will try to get some of them dropped or to have them consolidated. If the plea calls for active prison time, the attorney will work to try to minimize this time and have sentences served concurrently rather than consecutively if there are multiple charges.
One of the most common things criminal attorneys deal with are clients that have accepted a plea without understanding that plea and now they have changed their minds. Once a plea is accepted, it is extremely difficult to undo. A defense lawyer will be able to thoroughly explain the components of the plea and how it will impact you so that you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to accept the plea.
The benefit of a plea is that, while a judge needs to accept it when proposed, you know for the most part what the consequences will be upfront rather than wondering what the punishment will be. This again allows you to make an informed decision about how to resolve the case.
First Offender's Program / Deferral Agreement / Deferred Prosecution Agreement
In many jurisdictions, the courts have various programs for people who have little to no criminal history and are charged with non-violent or less serious crimes. These programs are designed for people who have made a bad decision, or were at the wrong place at the wrong time, especially where the crime charged is relatively minor.
If this is the case in the crime for which you are charged, an attorney will try to get you enrolled into one of these programs. These programs are good options in many cases because they are extremely low risk – usually once you are enrolled it is 100% up to you to be successful, but it also means that the only thing that can cause failure is you. Deferral programs usually involve some sort of community service, treatment, and or education classes as well as a period of time in which you cannot get in further trouble. In most cases, once these requirements are met, the charges against you will be dropped and sometimes, you can even file for an expungement for the history of the case ever happening to be removed from your criminal background.
This option is used if you are extremely risk averse and don't want to chance the outcome of a trial or if the facts of the case against you are extremely bad and you would likely be convicted at trial.
If you are charged with a crime, it is a serious matter. Just like you wouldn't self diagnose and treat cancer, you shouldn't handle a criminal matter by yourself. Protect yourself and your rights by engaging an experienced criminal attorney to help you fight your case.