So…you’ve been accused of committing a crime. Now what?
First thing you want to do is show up. If the judge tells you that you have to be somewhere on a particular date and time, show up. Why? If you do not show up, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. Which means any law enforcement officer can put you in handcuffs, bring you to the jail, and keep you there until the next day when a judge is available to see you. Huge hassle. Moreover, the judge will also be more inclined to place on you more restrictive conditions of release. He may, for example, make you post bail before you’re released from jail, impose travel restrictions, or have you report to a pretrial supervision office. Furthermore, you may be charged with an additional crime simply for missing court. Long and short? It pays to keep an organized calendar.
Second thing to do is obtain an attorney. Hire one, or ask for an appointed attorney. Why? An attorney is helpful because (1) he knows how the court works, procedurally; (2) he can speak on your behalf, allowing you to remain silent and not add fuel to the fire; and (3) he knows the law and is familiar with similar cases, and so can give you valuable advice. For example, if you have a job interview that conflicts with a court date, chances are your attorney will be more successful than you alone at getting the court date moved. Or, let’s say you want to provide the prosecutor with information that is at once an admission of guilt and a mitigating explanation; if you do it yourself, you’ve just confessed, which makes your case’s outlook less good; if your attorney does it for you, you may gain a better bargaining position. Or, let’s say the judge tells you the crime you’re charged with is punishable by up to five years in prison. You don’t believe you’ve done what you’re accused of doing, but you’re nervous about serving prison time. If the prosecutor comes to you and tells you he’ll recommend three months jail if you plead guilty, you may consider taking that offer. The same offer to a criminal defense attorney may sound very different, because he knows your standard range under the Sentencing Reform Act is one to three months, so he can tell you that the prosecutor’s “offer” is realistically the worst case scenario at trial, so you might as well roll the dice and see what a jury has to say.
Third thing to do is enter a not guilty plea. Why? “Not guilty” doesn’t mean “I didn’t do it.” “Not guilty” means “I am not yet convinced there is a substantial risk the prosecutor will be able to prove I committed this crime.” Until you’ve seen what the prosecutor’s evidence is, “not guilty” is the only sensible plea. Until you’ve determine whether and for what purpose that evidence is admissible, “not guilty” is the only sensible plea. And when you’re first asked by the judge what your plea is at the arraignment, you usually haven’t seen anything other than the charging document. You cannot possibly evaluate the evidence against you without having seen it, so you cannot possibly plead guilty at the arraignment. Now, your position may change. You may take a look at the evidence with your attorney and come to believe you’ll almost certainly be convicted at trial. And so you may want to change your plea. You may also come to believe that there’s a substantial risk of conviction, and want to negotiate to arrive at a compromise position. You can almost always change your plea later. [Note: there are a few exceptions to this general rule, because technically you only have the right to plead guilty at arraignment, and occasionally there are tactical reasons to do so. This is yet another reason why you want to obtain an attorney, even before this step. If you arrive at the arraignment without an attorney, and there is no appointed attorney presented for the purposes of that hearing, you may want to ask the court to postpone the arraignment so that you consult with an attorney prior to entering a plea.]
To review: show up, get attorney, and not guilty. Any questions?