Do I really need to hire an attorney for a simple crime, especially if I plan to plead guilty?
In criminal matters, you should always at least speak with an attorney. First, an attorney will be able to advise you of every single option at your disposal, including the chance to negotiate a lighter sentence or lesser charge. If you represent yourself, you may not be able to talk to the prosecution in the same way an attorney will. This means that if you are ever arrested for any crime, you should always invoke your constitutional right to an attorney (even if you do not have one yet) and never admit guilt until after speaking to someone licensed in your jurisdiction. You should invoke the right to an attorney immediately, clearly and verbally, at which point the police should cease questioning you. Just say something simple and straightforward like ‘I request an attorney before I will answer any questions.’
I think I was arrested for a federal crime. What do I do?
First, do not answer any questions from law enforcement until you have exercised your right to an attorney. Second, when seeking out an attorney, ensure that you find one who is experienced with federal law. The federal system is different from that of each state, both procedurally and substantively. It is important that your representative is well-versed in the form of government that is seeking prosecution, in order to most effectively defend you from the allegations.
How do I know my attorney is a good one?
If you are able to afford an attorney on your own, do some research. Ask people that you trust if they know any good criminal defense attorneys. If they do not know any good criminal attorneys, ask if they know any good attorney, period. Lawyers are very fraternal, and it is a small professional community. A good attorney will know other good attorneys, even when not in their field of practice. Do not be afraid to go online to reputable legal search websites to get peer and client reviews. If you cannot afford an attorney on your own, one will be appointed to you through the public defender’s office. These attorneys are usually well-seasoned and will do their best to adequately represent you; however, they are a public agency and as such are generally underfunded and overworked. You will know your attorney is good regardless of who pays them if they take the time to listen to your side of the story, your concerns and your goals, and makes sure you receive fair treatment from the state. If you ever feel that you are not being adequately represented, make your voice known to the lawyer and even their state bar. It could be the difference between freedom and jail.
I was convicted of something a long time ago – the state won’t use this against me, will they?
First, it depends on how long ago the conviction was, and what type of crime it was. Many states have rules of evidence that prevent the judge or jury from hearing about crimes, particularly if they were unrelated to the current crime, are not a crime of moral turpitude (like fraud), or if they were many years ago. A good defense attorney will work hard to mitigate any past behaviors, and will know the rules of evidence that will prevent any mention of these crimes that could hurt your case.
The prosecutor has already offered me a plea bargain. Should I take it?
Again, that depends. You should still go and speak to a good defense attorney about your options, and inquire about their opinion as to whether or not you have a good offer from the state. Remember, the prosecution represents the state – they do not have any interest in offering you a good or fair deal. Their only interest is in lowering the number of cases on their docket, which means offering whatever deal they think an unrepresented person will take. You are not an attorney – the state knows this. They know that you are inexperienced in criminal procedure, and likely will not know enough or be confident enough to demand they respect your constitutional rights. Always seek out the advice of an attorney before agreeing to anything when it comes to a criminal conviction.
I was arrested for the first time – it was a drug arrest. I am really scared, and think I have an addiction problem. How can an attorney possibly help me?
Modern day criminal justice systems typically understand that addiction leads directly to criminal behavior – not just possession of the drugs, but theft, robberies, and even solicitation. An attorney will be able to guide you to various drug programs in the state, and will be able to inform the court and the state that you are taking proactive steps to address any addiction you might have. Very often, especially if it is your first arrest, courts will be more lenient if you are taking steps to address the underlying issue, and might even offer a ‘deferred adjudication’ until and if you complete rehabilitation and other steps. This means the court will wait to make a decision on your guilt until they see that you are serious about reform and change. An attorney can give you information and ensure the court is kept aware of your progress.