Sometimes, it may be difficult to know whether or not your conduct is against the law, as not everything that society considers immoral is also illegal. However, ignorance of the law is no excuse, and you will not be absolved of responsibility because you were unaware that you committed a crime.
A person who has been accused of committing a serious crime should always consult a criminal attorney. It may be tempting to try to defend yourself against the accusation, but this is rarely advisable. The old adage "He who represents himself has a fool for a client" is not far wrong. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the penalties will vary and may result in a caution, fine or prison time. Rather than risk the most serious of consequences, refer the matter to your criminal attorney, who will have a good understanding of the criminal justice system and is in the best position to advise you of your rights. If you cannot afford to retain a criminal attorney, you should seek legal representation from a lawyer who offers pro bono services.
If the police have probable cause, they can make a lawful arrest and take you into custody. If your crime is as serious as assault, manslaughter or murder, and you have been placed under arrest, you still have rights. In some states, the police have 48 hours to decide whether to file formal charges against you. In those circumstances, if no formal charges are filed against you, you will be released from custody.
Although it may be tempting to respond to questions or accusations raised by the police or other law enforcement officials, this may not be in your best interests. If you have been taken into police custody, you should be given a Miranda Warning and should opt to not make any comments until you have consulted with your attorney. If you are not in police custody, or are not being interrogated about a crime by the police, the officers do not have to give you a Miranda Warning.
An interrogation will involve the police asking you questions that might implicate you in a crime. They may question you if, for example, you are seen near the scene of a crime. In an attempt to co-operate with law enforcement officials, some individuals choose to start making admissions as soon as an officer approaches them in the belief that the officer or the prosecutor will take a sympathetic view of their case. This is unlikely, and if in doubt, silence is usually the best option.
Likewise, if you chose to waive your Miranda rights and confess to a crime, you may find that the prosecuting attorney uses your words against you if your case goes to trial. Statements made to the investigators that you consider to be innocuous can turn out to be particularly incriminating. This may result in a harsher sentence being imposed at trial than if you had remained silent.
Once in police custody, you may be placed in jail until you appear in court for the arraignment. If your lawyer asks for bail and is successful, you will be allowed to leave court until the date of your trial—with certain conditions placed upon you by the judge. In deciding whether or not to grant bail, the court will consider, among other things, your past criminal record and whether you are a danger to the community. If bail is refused, you will remain in custody until the date of your trial.
If you have been committed to trial, you have the right to a fair trial, which includes free legal representation if you cannot afford it. While the trial procedure may vary depending on your jurisdiction, a fair trial will involve a chance to defend yourself before an independent and impartial court following a fair and just process. Usually, this will involve both the prosecution and the defense being engaged in the selection of a jury, presenting evidence, cross-examination of witnesses and giving closing arguments.
The law is not an exact science, and there are criminal trials that end in unexpected verdicts. Even though you are guilty, it may be that a jury finds you not guilty—an outcome that is more likely if the evidence against you is sparse or if the accusations cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
If there is probable cause to believe that you have committed a minor crime, a law enforcement official may simply issue a citation and not place you under arrest.
Depending on your state, citations may be issued for such offences as speeding, jaywalking or littering. The citation will inform you of a date to appear in court. Do not take the citation lightly; you should consult a criminal attorney to advise you of your best options.
During the time in between the issuing of the citation and the court date, the prosecution team will decide whether to bring criminal charges against you. Your attorney can investigate the matter on your behalf, speak to the prosecuting authorities, and may be able to convince the prosecutor to drop the case. If this negotiation fails, then you will have to appear in court for the arraignment at which you will plead guilty or not guilty to the charge. No juries are present at an arraignment.
If you plead not guilty to a minor crime, it will be for the prosecutor to prove the case against you at a future hearing. If you intend to plead guilty to a minor crime, your defense attorney and the prosecutor can negotiate a guilty plea and a possible sentence. The judge may then sentence you at the arraignment, or set a sentencing hearing and request a pre-sentence report.