To begin with, you do have the right to an attorney (legal representation), whether the attorney is an appointed public defender or you hire an aggressive and experienced attorney/firm such as Criminal Defense Associates to represent you. It's your choice. Be aware that the law contains a seemingly infinite number of loopholes. The right to a fair and speedy trial and the right to be provided a specific statement of the charges are two other very important rights of a defendant.
Your constitutional rights include:
Process of a Criminal Case
What is an Arraignment
An arraignment is where the defendant is read specific charges against him. It is the first step in the criminal process. All arraignments are conducted after the suspect is arrested and booked by law enforcement.
What Happens to the Defendant at the Arraignment?
The arraignment is the time where the judge will ask if the person appearing is the person identified in the charges. In addition, the judge will ask whether the defendant will plead not guilty. It is highly unusual that a defendant would plead guilty at the arraignment.
At an arraignment:
Differences Between Misdemeanors and Felonies
Generally, a misdemeanor crime is punishable by up to one year in county jail. Misdemeanor trials are held in the state's lower court, sometimes referred to as Municipal Court.
A felony crime is punishable by one year or more in state prison or a penitentiary. Felonies begin in the state's lower court system but may move up to the state Superior Court, or higher court.
The misdemeanor and felony arraignment processes are virtually identical to one another with one exception. In the misdemeanor arraignment process, a pre-trial in Municipal Court is the next step following arraignment. In the felony arraignment process, the next step is a pre-preliminary hearing or a preliminary hearing. Once the preliminary hearing is completed, a trial date is established.
It is recommended that the defendant obtain legal representation prior to arraignment. A public defender may have little time to review the case before arraignment, or may not even be assigned the case until arraignment. Preparation is key to a successful defense. A private attorney can meet with the defendant prior to arraignment, review the case, and provide the defendant with step-by-step options prior to the arraignment process.
Misdemeanor: The Arraignment To Appeals Process
The defendant may plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, he/she can expect to be sentenced. Very few cases are dismissed at arraignment. Once the arraignment is completed, the defendant prepares for trial in Municipal Court.
This involves a meeting between prosecution and defense. Topics discussed include plea bargain opportunities, pretrial motions and other factors in the case, such as the defendant's character and prior criminal history.
Municipal Court Trial
Each state has different rules for trials in Municipal Court. Some states provide the right to choose between a trial by judge or jury. Others do not allow the defendant a jury trial in misdemeanor cases.
The judge determines the length and type of punishment at a sentencing hearing. Witnesses are generally allowed to speak, requesting either a lighter or heavier sentence. The defendant may make a statement to the court. In addition, in some jurisdictions the court may ask for a report from the probation department prior to sentencing the defendant.
After a defendant has been found guilty by way of trial, the defense attorney may request a higher court to review specifically identified errors in procedure with the possibility of changing the lower court's decision. It is important to recognize that the appeals process may only begin after the defendant has received the final verdict, and been sentenced.
Once the trial has been completed, the facts have been decided. They cannot be changed by an appellate court. The appeals process reviews defects in procedure of the trial. If the defense attorney can identify substantial improper procedural issues, he may be able to win the appeal. Note that the timeline of the appeals process varies from state-to-state.
Some post conviction tactics to get relief for the defendant include:
Felony: The Arraignment to Appeals Process
The arraignment in a felony is identical to that in a misdemeanor case. Bail and identity are established, charges are ascertained and the attorney of record is confirmed. Very few cases are dismissed at arraignment.
This involves a meeting between prosecution and defense. Topics discussed in most states include plea bargain opportunities, strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutions case, and other factors, such as the defendant's character and past history.
At the preliminary hearing the judge determines whether sufficient evidence exists to send the case to the upper court for trial. The judge: 1) Decides whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed; 2) Decides whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime.
Superior Court Arraignment
The defendant is arraigned and pleads guilty, not guilty or no contest. At the arraignment, the identity of the defendant is confirmed, bail is established, charges are ascertained and an attorney of record is confirmed.
The pre-trial conference is a formal setting where plea bargaining occurs. The prosecution may offer alternative sentencing. The charge may be changed to a lesser charge. The number of felony counts may be dropped. A lesser punishment for the same charge may be agreed upon.
A jury trial is the fact finding phase of the case. It is the in-court examination and resolution of a criminal case. At the trial a decision will be reached as to the innocence or guilt of the defendant. Unlike a plea-bargained settlement which completes the case prior to trial, a trial introduces risk for both the prosecution and defense. Neither side knows which side will win. The trial begins with the prosecution's opening statement. The defense attorney may also present an opening statement at this time. The prosecution presents his case to support the charges and then rests. The defense presents his case to refute the charges and then rests. Closing arguments by both the prosecution and defense conclude the presentation part of the trial. The jury then deliberates innocence and guilt.
In a trial, expect the following to occur:
The judge determines the length and type of punishment at a sentencing hearing. Witnesses are generally allowed to speak, requesting either a lighter or stiffer sentence. The defendant may make a statement to the court.
Circumstances that Can Adversely Affect Sentencing:
Most states carry statutes which call for harsher penalties if a defendant's crime involves the use of a dangerous or deadly weapon, serious or permanent bodily injury, or crimes against youth or the elderly. These enhancements generally increase the sentencing penalties.
After a defendant has been found guilty by way of trial, the defense attorney may request a higher court to reverse the lower court's decision. The appellate process is primarily limited to correcting flaws in procedure and not to change a trial courts finding of fact. It is important to recognize that the appeals process may only begin after the defendant has received the final verdict. The timeline of the appeals process varies from State-to-State. However, time limits do exist. In death penalty cases, the appeals process is automatic.
95% of all cases end in a plea-bargain. Plea-bargaining is an excellent way to avoid a potential harsh conviction in favor of an agreed upon lighter conviction.
The prosecutor has the burden of proof. The defendant is innocent until proven guilty. During the trial, the prosecutor must present a case that convinces the judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.
The charges filed against the defendant at arraignment may be different from those originally filed by the arresting police officers.
It is critical that the attorney and defendant manage the details. Cases are won and lost in the details.
In many cases it is advisable to hire an investigator to design and implement a sound strategy to put the details on the defendant's side.
The appeals process works differently state-by-state. However, in most states, an appeal goes from the Criminal Court to the State Court Of Appeals to the State Supreme Court.
The defendant must manage his attorney. The defendant must make sure he understands what the attorney is doing, and why he is doing it, before it is done. The defendant can't wait until after the attorney presents the defense to inquire as to the course of action.
Bail is a method to get the defendant released during the trial proceedings. Bail is an amount of money used by the court to ensure the defendant comes back to court when required to do so. There are typically two factors the judge considers before setting bail.
Any bail argument by the defense attorney must address both parts:
Bail release options include:
What if I don't like my public defender?
A request for a new public defender is rarely granted. The defendant's rights are limited to the appointment of an attorney and not to the attorney of their choice. The defendant must prove to the court that representation is sub-standard, even incompetent. That may be done through claiming personality conflicts, or differences in communication, ethics, strategy, or through a potential bias.
What if I think the judge or prosecutor is biased?
The defense attorney may ask the judge to recuse himself (withdraw from the case) or he may file a motion with the court. In some states it is the automatic right of the defendant to recuse a judge on the basis the defendant believes the judge to be biased.
Legal Terms & Meanings
Not Guilty Plea
A plea by the defendant claiming innocence.
A plea by the defendant admitting guilt.
By issuing a plea of nolo contendere, or "no contest", the defendant accepts the punishment without formally admitting that he was guilty. By doing this, he avoids the consequences of a guilty plea with regard to potential liability to other people for civil (money) damages.
An arraignment is the process by which the defendant is read his rights and the list of charges against him is explained.
A felony crime is punishable by one year or more in state prison. Sample felony crimes include murder, rape, or armed robbery.
A misdemeanor crime is punishable by up to one year in county jail. Sample misdemeanor crimes include drunk driving, disorderly conduct and shoplifting.
This only occurs when the defendant's plea is "not guilty" in a felony charge. A preliminary hearing is shorter than a trial but operates similarly. It is conducted in front of a judge without a jury present. The primary goal of a preliminary hearing is to identify which charges are fit for trial and which are not.
Municipal Court Trial
A trial in lower court for a misdemeanor.
Once the defendant has plead guilty or received a guilty verdict by way of trial, he will be sentenced.
Superior Court Arraignment
Once a defendant has completed the initial arraignment and preliminary hearing in a felony case, the defendant is arraigned in Superior Court. The defendant presents a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest.
After a defendant has been found guilty by way of trial, the defense attorney may request a higher court to reverse the lower court's decision.
Pre-Trial Conference / Plea Bargaining
The pre-trial conference is a formal setting where plea-bargaining occurs. The prosecution may offer alternative sentencing. The charge may be changed to a lesser charge. The number of felony counts may be dropped. A lesser punishment for the same charge may be agreed upon.
The process by which a defendant is tried on charges and considered guilty or not guilty. Defendants charged with serious misdemeanors and felonies may be entitled to jury trials. Minor misdemeanor charges may be entitled to trial by judge. The rules differ state-by-state.
An insurance policy to ensure the defendant appears at his next scheduled court date. It is cash or a cash equivalent. An attorney may bring a motion to reduce bail at any appearance before the court. Bail can be received by cash, check, property, or a bond, which is a guaranteed payment of the full amount of bail. Bail is sometimes waived if the court feels the defendant is a good risk, and therefore is released on his own recognizance.
The process of selecting a jury through questioning by attorneys. This is the time when the attorneys may set the tone of the trial. Many cases have been won or lost in voir dire.
State vs Federal Page
If one is arrested by federal authorities and taken to a federal detention center, the likelihood is that the case will be handled in federal court. There are numerous types of offenses that fall under the category of "Federal Crimes", which include:
In federal court, both the United States Code and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines control sentencing. Under the Guidelines, a federal judge is required to sentence according to a formula, which is a combination of the offense of conviction and the defendant's criminal history.
Once the defendant is convicted and the prior record is determined, the judge uses a chart to determine the sentence that must be imposed. Since there are only a few ways to get a downward departure from sentencing guidelines, it is imperative that you are represented by an attorney who is thoroughly familiar with federal court procedures.
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. Typical examples of State crimes include:
How We Can Help
State prosecutors have the authority to determine the level of charges in each individual case (i.e., misdemeanor or felony) and indeed whether or not charges will be filed at all. This is where we come in.
Nikole Pezzullo’s experience, aggressive and highly skilled defense has consistently achieved outstanding results across the nation by intervening early in the criminal process in order to prevent cases from being filed or prosecuted, or by influencing the seriousness of the charges filed. If the matter proceeds to trial, our attorneys will, as they always do, obtain the best possible outcome for our clients.
Criminal Process Page
The criminal process typically begins with a stop or an arrest. The process, which we have summarized for you into 5 simple steps, may end at any point up to the time of sentencing. Where the process ends will depend on the facts and circumstances of your specific case. You have certain rights at every stage of the criminal process which are summarized for you:
1. The Stop
You may be stopped for questioning by the police (this is not an arrest). A stop occurs when a police officer detains you to ask you questions, but does not move you to a different location. A police officer should not stop you unless he has a reasonable belief that you have violated the law.
Even though you are not under arrest at this point, you do not have to answer any questions that the police officer asks you. The police may also ask to search you or your vehicle. The police officer cannot search your car without your consent unless he has "probable cause". "Probable cause" is a legal determination that you won't be able to challenge until later. Because of this, you may want to tell the police officer that you do not consent to a search of your vehicle.
The police officer may perform a search anyway, but if it is later determined that there was not probable cause, at least you won't have consented to the search. The police officer could decide at this point that there is no reason to arrest you and your involvement in the criminal process could end here.
2. The Arrest
Each jurisdiction has different rules regarding when an individual can be placed under arrest. In general, an officer can arrest you if he has probable cause to believe that you committed a felony, or if he sees you commit a misdemeanor, or if there is a warrant for your arrest. When you are arrested you will be taken into police custody.
When you are placed under arrest, the police must inform you of your constitutional rights. This includes your right to remain silent and your right to obtain the advice of an attorney. When you are arrested you should be given an opportunity to contact a lawyer or anyone else you want to let know what has happened to you. You are not limited to a single call. Once you are arrested there is a limited amount of time before you must either be charged with a crime or released. If you have been held for an unreasonable amount of time without being charged, your attorney can ask a judge to order your release.
3. The Booking
After you are arrested and charged with a crime you will be booked; you will be finger printed; your name and the crime that you have been charged with will be entered into the official police record; your personal belongings will be taken from you for safe keeping while you are in custody; they will be inventoried and you will be asked to sign the inventory. Depending on the charge and the circumstances of your case, you may be released and ordered to appear for your hearing in court. You may be released on your own recognizance or you may have to put up a certain amount of bail to secure your release.
In other instances, you may remain in police custody until there is a court hearing on your release. If this happens, you will be asked to enter a plea. You can enter a plea of "not guilty", "no contest", or "guilty". If you enter a not guilty plea the judge will decide on the terms of your release or if you will be released pending your trial.
4. The Sentencing
If you enter a plea of no contest or of guilty, there will not be a trial. In this situation, you will either be sentenced immediately or sentenced at a later time. If you are to be sentenced at some point in the future, the judge will determine whether you should be held in custody until sentencing or whether you should be released and ordered to appear for sentencing.
5. The Trial
If you entered a not guilty plea you will have a trial. At the end of your trial, if you are found not guilty, you will be free to go, and, for you, the criminal process will end at that point. If you are found guilty, you will go through the sentencing process as described above.Whether or not you choose Nikole Pezzullo, Esq. to represent your case, having a lawyer with experience in criminal defense can make a tremendous difference to the outcome, while helping you through every stage of the criminal process.