Criminal Law is a comprehensive system of legal rules designed to keep the public safe and deter wrongful conduct. Those who violate the law face incarceration, fines, and other penalties.
The American Criminal Justice System is both complex and adversarial in nature. Except for minor traffic violations, accused individuals will require the assistance of an attorney.
Criminal laws and penalties vary by state, but each has its statutory codes (also known as "penal codes") that list the crimes and their consequences. These laws reflect the values of that specific jurisdiction.
More serious crimes are felonies. In other countries, these crimes are often called "crimes against the state." These crimes are punishable by imprisonment in state prisons and can, in extreme cases, carry the death penalty.
The consequences of committing a serious crime will be long-lasting and damaging. It can limit your ability to find employment, a place to live, enter into new relationships, and much more.
When judicial questions arise regarding how a criminal statute should be interpreted, judges and other judicial actors look to different judicial opinions issued in the past by judges or other judicial actors within the same system. That well-established rule is known as "stare decisis" from the Latin word stare decisis, meaning "to stand by that which is decided."
Law enforcement agencies investigate alleged crimes thoroughly and within their constitutional boundaries. Procedural rules are in place to ensure police officers respect the constitutional rights of the citizens they investigate.
When a defense attorney challenges the legality of a criminal prosecution, most times, the dispute results from procedural violations by the police.
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Each stage of criminal prosecution presents opportunities for defendants familiar with the court system, skilled in the law, and aggressive in asserting their rights. A defense attorney can be the difference between probation and prison time. But when legal counsel has not been hired or appointed, accused individuals can take actions that significantly hurt their interests.
For example, following an arrest, law enforcement will question a suspect regarding the crime. The officers will inform the suspect of their "Miranda warnings," which include the right to remain silent, the right to have an attorney present during questioning, and the right to compel witnesses to appear before the court.
When you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, you must appear in open court for an arraignment. The judge will explain the nature of the charges to the defendant and ask for a plea. Without the assistance of a lawyer, defendants often plead guilty at this stage, as they do not fully understand their rights and are therefore unaware of alternatives.
Discovery proceedings are a critical stage in a criminal case. This is when the defendant has the chance to demand that the prosecutor turn over copies of all of the evidence gathered by law enforcement. In DUI and DWI cases, the police reports, lab results, video recordings, and other items will likely determine whether the case settles or continues to trial.
If the defendant is unwilling to accept a plea bargain from the state, the case will proceed to trial. However, this is a task that most people should not attempt. The trial process involves:
- studying the rules of evidence;
- studying the law; and,
- questioning and cross-examining witnesses.
Such tasks are intimidating and difficult to a layperson without training or experience.