What the Public Needs to Know About Criminal Cases
Swazi Taylor, Esq. and Jay Mykytiuk
Criminal Law: An Overview
Criminal law involves the prosecution by the government of any person accused of an act that constitutes a crime. A crime is the commission of an act or the omission of an act in violation of a public law. Most crimes are made so by statute; such as a penal or criminal code. It is the filing of criminal charges that starts the lawsuit. The charges are generally contained in a written complaint filed by the governments attorney, the prosecutor (or district attorney). Some jurisdictions use the Grand Jury–a public body of citizens, who hear evidence and then decide whether or not charges should be filed. Often the charging document is referred to as an indictment. In either case, once the action is commenced, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused (defendant) committed the crime charged. Those convicted of a crime maybe subject to imprisonment, fines or both.
Historically crimes fit within two categories: Felonies and Misdemeanors. Felonies are generally crimes punishable by more than one year of incarceration in prison, along with fines. In addition, there are other implications of a felony conviction (for example, the right to vote is lost and the right to own a firearm is lost as well). Misdemeanors are less serious crimes that, upon conviction, result in a local jail sentence of generally less than one year.
State vs. Federal Court
Most criminal prosecutions are heard in State Courts. All states (excluding the District of Columbia) have their own criminal or penal code, and defendants who violate this code are tried in the state in which the violation occurs.
The Federal courts have jurisdiction over both misdemeanor and felony offenses. If you have been arrested or are under investigation by a local police department, you will most likely be prosecuted in a state court. State crimes are violations of state and local statutes or ordinances. They are prosecuted in either Municipal or Superior Courts in the county in which the charges are filed, by either City Attorneys or District Attorneys.
If the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or Homeland Security Agency is involved, you probably will be prosecuted in the federal court system. Misdemeanor or felony offenses that are prosecuted in federal courts generally involve issues of federal law or involve crimes that have occurred on federal property or crimes in which unlawful activity crosses state lines. As a general rule, federal crimes involve much more serious penalties. Federal crimes are prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys.
Misdemeanors are generally considered less serious criminal acts. They are usually punishable by a maximum fine of $1000 and a county jail term of one year or less. Misdemeanor convictions may also result in loss of privileges, such as ownership of a firearm, professional licenses, public offices, or public employment. Examples of misdemeanor violations include:
- Petty theft
- Driving under the influence
- Simple drug possession
- Simple assault
Felony crimes are more serious, and are generally punishable by a state or federal prison term or, in certain highly serious felony cases, death. Typically, felony convictions also result in loss of privileges and a forfeiture of certain civil rights, including the right to vote. Examples of felony crimes include:
- Commercial Burglary
- Residential Burglary
- Possession of controlled substances
- Possession of marijuana, controlled substances, dangerous drugs for sale or transport
- Assault, generally involving force or injury
- Criminal Threats
- Child Molestation
The process of bringing a defendant to trial in state court varies across the states. The general steps may include:
- Investigation and Arrest (may or may not include the use of warrants)
- Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury Proceedings
- Misdemeanor or Felony Complaint/Information or Indictment
- Settlement Conferences
- Hearings on Legal Motions
- Trial Proceedings
- Sentencing Hearing
If you are arrested for violation of the law, a good criminal defense attorney should:
- Advise you of your rights
- Keep you apprised of impending court date(s)
- Advise you of what lies ahead in the criminal process
- Have a strategy for the defense of your case
- Contact the police and/or prosecutor to negotiate dropping charges or filing a lesser charge
- Arrange bail or release on your own recognizance
- Make a motion for your release or for reduction of bail
- Investigate the matter thoroughly
- Make a motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence
- Make all appropriate legal motions
- Negotiate and advocate aggressively on your behalf
- Examine and/or cross-examine witnesses at all hearings
- Prepare the case for trial proceedings
- Conduct the trial, where necessary
- Prepare argument and witnesses for sentencing
- Inform you of any plea deal offered by the prosecution
Imhoff & Associates, P.C. Criminal Defense Attorneys has a nationwide network of attorneys. All of our criminal attorneys are focused on one goal: Employing a strategy to acheive the best possible outcome based on the facts of each case.
You can assist in your defense by:
- Exercising your constitutional right to remain silent
- Retaining qualified counsel as soon as possible
- Gathering documentation of your good character (reference letters, employment history, community service, educational history with transcripts, medical history and doctors reports, etc.)
- Keeping a diary of all significant events and potential witnesses, which will help your attorney prepare the best possible defense
As you can see, the investigation and prosecution of persons accused of committing crimes involves complex procedures and rules. It is best to seek out a highly qualified and experienced criminal attorney, who is licensed to practice law before the State court or Federal court where the criminal charges have been filed.
For a more detailed explanation of the criminal process, see our Criminal Case Process Page
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