Have you been charged with a crime? Do you believe you may soon be charged with a crime? Whether you are falsely accused or guilty of the charge brought against you, you should understand your rights and what steps you can take to defend yourself. You may be confused, anxious or overwhelmed and want to forget what’s happening. But a criminal charge is a serious and complicated legal process. Knowing how to proceed when you are charged with a crime can protect you from undue discomfort and penalization.
Criminal charges are often filed after you have been arrested. There are a variety of charges, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies and including everything from assault and battery to shoplifting, DWI, and possession or the sale of narcotics.
The following steps trace the timeline of an arrest and how you can help protect yourself throughout the process.
1. Don’t Resist Arrest
Understanding your rights and picking a verbal fight with a police officer are two very different things. If you believe your rights are being violated, ask to speak with an attorney. But, unless you fear for your safety, resisting arrest or otherwise creating difficulty for police officers is likely to make your situation worse. Cooperation is always appreciated by men and women in law enforcement. And you should always remember that the arresting officer’s role in your charges doesn’t end with your arrest. If you are combative or difficult, that information will find its way to the judge.
2. Know When Miranda Rights Apply
Your Miranda rights are the set of rights an officer reads upon making an arrest. “You have the right to remain silent,” and, “You have the right to an attorney,” and so on. In certain cases defendants can have their testimony thrown out if Miranda rights are not read or sufficiently understood. That being said, you shouldn’t count on this. Know when your Miranda rights apply. For example, if you are pulled over for a traffic citation then admit to possession of marijuana, you can’t claim the officer never read you your Miranda rights. He was not arresting you, and such an admission could be used as probable cause to search your vehicle.
3. Know What Officers Can and Cannot Search
You may have a friend who tells you that police can’t search your car without a warrant. While your friend isn’t completely wrong, issues of what and where police officers can search are more complicated than whether or not they have a warrant. Officers can search without a warrant if you give them consent, they believe they have probable cause there is evidence of a crime, they believe a search is necessary for their own protection or if you have been arrested and the search is related to that arrest. For example, if you are pulled over for speeding and the officer smells marijuana, he or she could conduct a search of your vehicle even without a warrant.
If you believe officers are illegally searching your vehicle or person, don’t struggle or become angry as that may contribute to additional charges or provide sufficient probably cause for a completely admissible search.
4. Ask for Your Phone Call. Politely.
The right to make a phone call is commonly cited in television and movies, but it is largely a misunderstood policy. You do not always – or often – have the right to make an immediate phone call to whomever you want. Some precincts will only allow you to call an attorney or someone to make bail, and often only after booking has been completed. And, as with the earlier steps, don’t raise a stink with the officers. They are there to protect your rights, and being difficult is almost guaranteed to make things worse.
When you do secure your phone call, you may wish to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Charges are generally placed after an arrest is made, and consulting with an attorney early could save you significant penalties and complications going forward.
5. Using Writs of Habeas Corpus if Detained but Not Charged
After you are arrested, you must be charged with a crime within a limited amount of time or you are free to go. That doesn’t mean you can get up and walk out when the clock strikes midnight, but it does mean you have an option if you are being held without being charged. A writ of habeas corpus allows jailed individuals to request a judge set them free or end the jailing due to lack of charges. However, there is no guarantee your request will be granted.
6. Understanding the Arraignment Process
The arraignment takes place after an arrest, booking and initial bail is set. This is the part of the process where you plead either guilty, not guilty or no contest. That being said, there are situations where your attorney or legal counsel can stand in for you during the arraignment hearing and present your plea. While this can feel like a formality to those unfamiliar with the process – or only familiar through Law and Order procedurals – important decisions are made. You should know what is expected of you and how you should present yourself at your arraignment hearing. And you certainly shouldn’t miss it. An experienced attorney can help you understand and track your obligations and responsibilities throughout the legal process.
7. Posting Bail
In some cases you may not be entitled to place bail, for example if the judge believes you to be a flight risk or a danger to yourself or others. Other times a judge may release you “on your own recognizance,” meaning you don’t have to pay bail, but you do have to sign a document guaranteeing you will be in court as required throughout your proceedings. We more commonly think of judges setting bail amounts based on a variety of factors like severity of the crime and the suspect’s criminal record. An experienced attorney can help you understand the bail process and your legal obligations after you do pay your bail.
If you are charged with a crime, you can protect yourself by cooperating with law enforcement, consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney and understanding your rights and obligations throughout the criminal defense process.