Accused of a crime? Three fundamental first steps

If you are charged with a crime and required to attend court, you will likely receive a lot of well-meaning advice from family and friends. However, in this situation it is easy to make things worse for you, and there are three critical steps you must take without delay.

First of all, make sure you know exactly what you are being charged with and what the consequences could be if you are found guilty of the crime. The police will have given or sent you a document called “information” (in some jurisdictions, this is called a charge sheet and may sometimes be accompanied by a subpoena requiring you to attend court). This document will state what the charge is, but generally will not state the penalty or other consequences of being convicted. Even if you have been given the maximum prescribed penalty for the crime, sometimes there are other consequences of being convicted that are far worse than the prescribed penalty. For example, if you are convicted of a drug possession offense, you may be able to avoid jail time, but that conviction on your record could mean that you are denied entry to many countries around the world. Not a great result if you have plans to travel the world! Another example is when a person is accused of indecent assault or child abuse. Even if that criminal charge is settled with a fine or community service, it can have lifelong consequences in some jurisdictions if your career or planned career involves working with children. Being convicted of that type of crime could mean that you will never be able to be a foster caregiver, a teacher, a school counselor, or even a school janitor (for example). Therefore, a guilty verdict or a guilty plea in that situation could forever lock you out of some career options. You must verify this before pleading guilty. Another problem is that sometimes people think that a “first offense” rarely results in a jail sentence. While it is true that a first offense can be considered more lenient, many people go to jail for the first offenses. This is especially true for felony drug supply offenses, crimes of aggravated violence, and of course murder. Therefore, it is a good idea to ask an attorney about the maximum penalty and other possible consequences of the charge you are facing. In my experience, young adults are at particular risk of pleading guilty if they believe they will only have to pay a fine, regardless of the possible long-term consequences of having that crime on their criminal record. On many occasions, people in their 40s and 50s have asked me for advice about a problem that arises from a conviction they received when they were teenagers or 20. Sometimes solutions to these types of problems can be found, but usually after 20 or 30 years is too late. The best time to get the best result is at the beginning, when you are first charged. Even when a person is found guilty of a crime, it may be possible to obtain a release without conviction, so the crime is not on their record, if the circumstances justify that result. Knowing all the possible consequences of a conviction allows you to make the best decisions for your future.

Second, if you are subject to a bond or a seized violence order (AVO, sometimes called a protection order or domestic violence order), check the terms of the bond and the restrictions under the AVO. Breaching your bond may result in it being revoked. Failure to comply with an AVO may result in new charges for the failure. For example, an AVO may prohibit you from contacting a specific person. If you try to contact that person, the police can charge you. So even if you are eventually found not guilty of the original crime, you may have a criminal record due to the AVO violation. It is critical that you know and understand the restrictions imposed by your lease and the terms of the AVO. While these restrictions on what you can do can be irritating, particularly if you deny the crime you are charged with, the court takes bail and AVO violations very seriously. If you don’t think the terms of the lease or AVO are reasonable, consult an attorney to change them. A lawyer can talk to the police about the terms and may be able to negotiate more suitable terms that make your life easier while the case is not resolved. In some situations, the police will not accept new terms, or the court may refuse to approve new terms (even if the police accept them), so in that situation it may be necessary to have a hearing for the court to decide which terms. should apply. Remember that the lease is an alternative to your pending trial detention, and if the court is concerned that you may violate the terms of your lease, it can revoke it. In that case, you could remain in pretrial detention until your case is over, especially if the charge against you is serious or if the court considers you a danger to the community. Strictly adhering to the terms of your bond and AVO is one way to convince the court that you have the ability to be a law-abiding citizen. This can sometimes make a difference when it comes to sentencing, because one of the factors a court must consider when deciding whether to incarcerate an offender is whether that offender is likely to reoffend if released into the community.

Third, talk to an attorney about your case and ask what steps you need to take to get the best result. Anything you tell an attorney about your case is covered by “legal professional privilege,” which means that the attorney cannot be required to tell anyone else what you have said. Therefore, you should trust your attorney and answer your attorney’s questions honestly to get the best advice for your situation. In particular, your attorney should be able to advise you on the chances of the charge being proven, that is, if you are likely to be found guilty and how much credit you could get for an early guilty plea. Sometimes an early guilty plea can reduce the sentence by as much as 25 percent, depending on the sentencing rules or guidelines that apply. A sentence discount will reduce your fine or imprisonment, and could even mean the difference between serving your sentence in jail or being allowed “house arrest.” Getting a sentence discount for an advance declaration is a reduction worth having if a conviction is unavoidable anyway. An attorney will also advise you on the prospects of defending the charge, in which case you will need help planning your defense. Although defendants sometimes appear in court without a lawyer, you should be aware that the police have very good resources and their goal is to convict you. An experienced criminal defense attorney will have prior experience in similar cases and will ensure that the police prove your case against you beyond a reasonable doubt. Some aspects of criminal law are very complex and an attorney can advise you on the defenses that may be available to you that you would not otherwise be aware of. In some situations, particularly where you have never been charged with a crime before, an attorney can suggest ways to get a better result. For example, you may be eligible for “detour,” an option where you can avoid conviction by participating in a prescribed program, or in a traffic case you may do better if you complete a “traffic violator program” in jurisdictions where a program like that is available.

Lawyers know how to obtain relevant information from the police and other organizations. In some cases, the police may fail to disclose facts that could be helpful to you and an attorney can verify that all necessary disclosures have been made. An attorney can also verify if the police have followed the required procedures. The discovery of a serious police error could even lead to the withdrawal of a charge in some circumstances. In many cases, the police file multiple charges, and an attorney may try to negotiate for the most serious charges to be dropped, or for a serious charge to be demoted to a lesser one.

Note: This article relates to the post-indictment situation. If you have not yet been charged, you should make sure you get legal advice before speaking to the police or making any admissions.