The criminal process can be complex and confusing. It's important to understand your legal rights. Contact a criminal attorney in your area as soon as possible if you're suspected of a crime. A criminal defense attorney will explain your legal options and help you make the best decisions for your case.
You may be stopped for questioning by the police. A stop isn't considered an arrest if you're briefly detained and not moved to a different location. To maintain your legal rights when stopped by the police:
- Remain calm and polite. Keep your hands in view and don't try to run away
- If you're stopped when driving, show your driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance if the officer asks for them
- You have the right to remain silent. It's usually best to give your name, but tell the officer you're exercising your right to remain silent if you don't want to answer questions. Don't lie to the police
- Ask the officer why you were stopped and if you're under arrest
- You have the right to leave if you aren't under arrest. If you are placed under arrest, you have the right to an attorney. Tell the police you wish to remain silent until you speak with your attorney
The police might ask if they can search you, your car or home. You can refuse to give consent to these searches. Officers can frisk you or pat down your clothing if they have a reason to suspect you have a weapon. In most other cases, the police must get a warrant to go ahead with a search.
A search warrant authorizes police to conduct a search of a specific place, such as your home or business. In order for a judge to issue a warrant, there must be probable cause.
The general rule is that warrants are required for searches. But search warrants are not required for the following:
- Searches incident to arrest: Police officers are permitted to search your body and clothing for weapons or other contraband when making a valid arrest
- Automobile searches: If you're arrested in a vehicle, the police may search the inside of the vehicle. To perform a complete search of the vehicle (such as in locked glove compartments or trunks, for example), probable cause is necessary
- Exigent circumstances: Searches may be conducted in emergency situations requiring immediate action, such as to avoid the destruction of evidence
- Plain view: Police don't need a search warrant when they see an object that is in plain view of an officer who has the right to be in the position to have that view
- Consent: If you consent to a search of your body, your vehicle or your home, the police aren't required to have a warrant. You aren't required to agree to any police searches
The police must have probable cause in order to arrest you. This means the police officer must have a reasonable belief you committed a crime. If an officer sees you commit a crime or has another good reason to think you broke the law, an arrest warrant isn't needed.
After you're placed under arrest, you are protected by constitutional rights. Two important rights are the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney. After your arrest, you aren't required to say anything to the police or investigators until you have an attorney present. You must be given the chance to contact an attorney.
After you're arrested, the police will bring you to the police station for the booking process. You'll be fingerprinted and asked a series of questions, such as your name and birth date. You'll also be searched and photographed. Your personal property such as jewelry will be catalogued and stored.
Once criminal charges are filed, you'll make a court appearance called an arraignment. If you're held in jail, your arraignment will usually occur within 72 hours of your arrest. A person charged with a crime is called the defendant.
During your arraignment, you'll be asked to enter a plea to the crime charged against you. Possible pleas are:
- Guilty plea: If you plead guilty, you're admitting to the facts of the crime and the fact that you were the one who committed that crime. There will not be a trial and you'll be sentenced
- Not guilty plea: A not guilty plea asserts that you did not commit the crime charged against you. After your plea, a pretrial or trial date will be set
- Mute plea: In some states, you may "stand mute" instead of making a plea. The court will then enter a plea of not guilty. By standing mute, you avoid silently admitting to the correctness of the proceedings against you until that point. You are then free to attack all previous proceedings that may have been irregular
Release on Bail
During the arraignment or in a separate hearing, the court may determine whether the defendant will be released from jail until the time of trial. The court may:
- Set bail
- Refuse to set bail
- Release you on your own personal recognizance, which means that the court takes your word that you will appear when necessary for later court obligations
A professional bail bondsman is an individual whose business is to pledge his or her own property or security to guarantee the bail bond to the court.
Many prosecutors will consider plea agreements, although it's not legally required. A plea agreement is a deal in which the prosecutor offers an incentive, like a shorter sentence or reduced charges, if the defendant agrees to plead guilty.
Criminal defendants have several legal rights that apply during a trial. These include:
- Speedy trial: A trial must be held within a reasonable time period after you are charged with a crime
- Trial by a jury: You are entitled to a trial by a jury if charged with a crime punishable by six or more months of jail time. You may give up this right by requesting a bench trial (a trial in front of a judge only)
- Effective assistance of counsel: You have the right to a lawyer who must do a reasonably good job of defending you
- Right to remain silent: You're not required to testify in court
- Right to confront witnesses: You or your lawyer must be able to cross-examine any witnesses who testify against you
A judge will determine your punishment or sentence if you plead guilty or you're found guilty in a trial. The severity of your sentence is largely determined by the seriousness of your crime. Sentencing may include:
- Paying a fine: This is the usual punishment for less serious crimes called misdemeanors
- Jail or prison time: This is usually the sentence for committing a felony, like armed robbery
- Restitution: This includes paying for the damage or loss caused by the crime
- Probation: This means you stay out of jail so long as you comply with the terms of your probation
- Alternative sentences: These include things like doing community service or completing a drug rehabilitation program
- Death: This is the ultimate punishment applied to the most serious crimes
After conviction and sentencing, you have the chance to file an appeal. An appeal is not a retrial of the case. It's an examination of the trial record to make sure the proceedings were done in a fair manner. There are strict deadlines to meet if you file an appeal.
There are numerous reasons for an appeal, including "legal error." Legal error may include:
- Allowing inadmissible evidence during the criminal process, including evidence obtained in violation of your constitutional rights
- Lack of evidence to support a guilty verdict
- Mistakes in the judge's instructions to the jury
You may also appeal due to misconduct by the jurors or when there is newly discovered evidence that proves you are innocent of the crime.