Federal and state governments prohibit certain activities by passing criminal statutes. A person who is alleged to have commited a crime may be prosecuted under the relevant criminal law. Criminal defense lawyers represent people accused of committing criminal acts, and they work to defend their clients by carefully reviewing evidence, identifying any constitutional problems, negotiating with prosecutors and going to hearings and trials. Due to the potential loss of liberty, criminal prosecutions carry a higher burden of proof than civil cases.
Prosecutors must prove that a defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest burden of proof in American law. Defendants are generally not required to prove anything at trial. In order to find a person guilty of a crime, the jury must find that there is no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the criminal offense.
Criminal procedure varies depending on the jurisdiction in which the person is charged. A criminal case is typically initiated either by a prosecutor filing a criminal complaint or through a grand jury indictment. After the charges are filed, cases tend to proceed in a similar general manner. States and the federal government have set criminal procedure requirements outlined in their respective codes. Generally speaking, people can expect their cases to proceed as follows:
- Charges filed or grand jury indicts
- Defendant is arrested or a summons to appear is issued
- Initial appearance and bond determination
- Plea bargaining process between prosecutor and defense attorney
- Motions filed, hearings held
- Jury or court trial
- Verdict handed down
- Sentencing if defendant is found guilty or if they plead guilty
- Post-conviction appeals
If the defendant is convicted, then sentencing occurs. The sentence may involve the defendant going into custody, which could involve prison, probation, treatment or some other type of sentence.
People who have been arrested have the constitutional right to speak to an attorney -- if they request one. They also have the right to remain silent in the face of police interrogation. If facing serious charges (typically when facing a year or more in prison), they have the right to have an attorney represent them.
Criminal defendants have the right to due process. This encompasses the right to be informed the nature of the charges against them, the right to confront, or cross-examine, witnesses who testify against them and the right to a trial by jury or by the court. Even before charges are filed, people have constitutional rights that law enforcement officers must honor, including rights under the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.
Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help
When someone asks for an attorney to be appointed or hire a private lawyer, the attorney will appear with them in court. Lawyers are meant to guide defendants through the proceedings and protect their rights. Attorneys request copies of all of the evidence against their clients from the prosecutor or the police.
Attorneys also review that evidence to see if their client's rights were violated. If the rights were violated, attorneys may file motions seeking to suppress evidence from the case. A criminal defense attorney may also negotiate with the prosecutor in order to try to get a more favorable plea offer (potentially with dropped or reduced charges) for their client. If a plea is not reached, then the attorney will prepare for trial.
Constitutional protections for people who are accused of crimes help to prevent the government from overstepping its bounds. If law enforcement officers violate those rights, the case could be dismissed. If a prosecutor is unable to prove that the person committed the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant should be found not guilty. It is an emotional, pressure-filled experience to be charged with a crime. A qualified criminal defense lawyer should help you through a plea bargain, help secure a dismissal or prepare the best defense at trial.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.
Additional Criminal Defense Articles
- What To Do If You're Arrested
- When Must The Police Read Me My Miranda Rights?
- Miranda Rights: The Who, What, Where, When and Why
- Initial Consultation With a Criminal Defense Attorney or a Public Defender
- Infraction, Misdemeanor or Felony: What is the Difference?
- Murder vs. Manslaughter
- Avoiding a Criminal Record
- Can Police Search a Car Without a Warrant?
- Expunging Criminal Records
- What is a Plea Bargain?
- What to do if Police Use Excessive Force
- What is expungement?
- Sentencing Guidelines: Fair Sentences or a Denial of Trial by Jury?
- Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity
- Police Misconduct Leading to Wrongful Convictions
- What is Assault?
- What are my rights when charged with a crime?
- How the False Testimony of Snitches Results in Wrongful Convictions
- Witness Misidentification
- What Is Bail?
- Prosecutorial Misconduct Leading to Wrongful Convictions
- How Bad Lawyering Can Result in Wrongful Convictions
- Does an Expunged Criminal Record Still Follow You?
- Violating Probation
- What Happens When You Face Out of State Criminal Charges?
- Double Jeopardy
- What Is The National Sex Offender Registry?
- The Truth About Perjury
- Bail For Beginners
- When Does Discipline Become Abuse?
- Are Lie Detector Tests Admissible?
- Defense Strategies in Criminal Cases
- Probable Cause to Arrest Someone
- Resisting Arrest
- The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine
- What Is a Defense Attorney?
- Criminal Law Basics
- Your Fifth Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination
- If I Am Arrested, Should I Hire An Attorney?
- Search and Seizure Laws by State
- Criminal Statutes of Limitations: Time Limits for State Charges
State Criminal Defense Articles
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota