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Posted on January 16, 2020 in Criminal Defense

What Is a Criminal Defense Attorney and When Do You Need One?

Facing criminal charges is not something to take lightly. Even if your offense is minor, you will want a qualified criminal defense attorney on your side throughout the process. Further, while you may only consider hiring a lawyer after being arrested or charged, there are important reasons to contact an attorney earlier.

Keep in mind that any lawyer you consider to represent you should be knowledgeable about criminal law matters. Many attorneys also specialize in certain criminal defense areas, such as focusing on assaults, DUIs, or drug offenses. This may help you in deciding which lawyer would be the best fit for your case.

Your Right to an Attorney

Under the U.S. constitution, you have the right to be represented by counsel in all criminal prosecutions. This includes both felonies and misdemeanors. It’s also your decision who you choose to handle your case. In the event that you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. 

Note that this right “attaches” whenever a judicial proceeding is initiated against you. This means that you can request an attorney the moment that you are formally charged or during a preliminary hearing, indictment, or arraignment. However, understand that this right only applies to charges that can result in a prison sentence. In other words, you would not have the right to an attorney for minor traffic offenses.

Further, keep mind that, although your right to an attorney begins when proceedings are initiated, you can and should contact an attorney whenever you are concerned that charges will be brought. This is true even for minor traffic violations where there is no right to counsel.

Interrogations by the Police

Now, police interrogations can be intimidating. For this reason, law enforcement is required to give you the Miranda warnings if you are being detained and about to be questioned. These inform you that you have the right to an attorney and that anything you say to the police can be used against you.

It’s important that you understand that it’s almost always best not to say anything to an officer until you speak with an attorney. Bear in mind that the police are only required to apprise you of your rights if you are in custody. Note that custody does not necessarily mean that you are in handcuffs, but it does require that you are deprived of your freedom in some way.  

Understanding this distinction is critical because an officer does not need to warn you about your right to counsel if you are in a public place and voluntarily agree to speak to the police. A common example would be if an officer asks you questions on the street. This means that statements that you make under these circumstances can be used against you even if you were not read your Miranda rights.

Because these cases are highly fact-sensitive, it can be helpful to reach out to an attorney if you are concerned about any interactions you had with police. A qualified criminal defense attorney can look into your case advise you on how best to proceed.

What Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Do?

With that in mind, you may be wondering how a criminal defense attorney can help with your criminal matter. One of the first things a qualified defense lawyer will do is fully investigate your case. This involves interviewing you, speaking with witnesses, and examining the evidence.

The attorney will also likely determine whether or not there were any violations of your constitutional rights. Examples include illegal searches and seizures or failure by the police to read you the Miranda warnings. Following this investigation, the lawyer will then advise you on your rights and inform you about the steps involved in the criminal process.

Next, the attorney may initiate plea deal negotiations with the Government on your behalf. Keep in mind that you have the ultimate say in whether or not you choose to accept any deal that is offered. If no agreement is reached, the attorney will represent you at trial. The trial process generally includes: 

  • Preliminary hearings
  • Jury selection
  • Opening and closing statements
  • Presentation of evidence to the jury, and
  • Questioning of witnesses.

Now, in the event that you are found guilty, the attorney will also represent you during sentencing. This involves a hearing where a judge will issue your punishment. In some cases, an attorney may also agree to assist with any appeals.