A substantial amount of my time during an initial client interview is dedicated to explaining the process of the criminal justice system. The majority of my clients have never been arrested and presumably will never be in trouble again. The system can be confusing and this is especially true for my teenage clients. So in order to help pull back the curtain of mystery that shrouds the court system, I thought I would explain some of the terms and procedures here.
The Arrest or Citation: More often than not, a police officer will issue a driver a citation for a simple traffic violation. By signing the bottom of the ticket, you are agreeing to appear in court. Failing to appear will result in a license suspension (see last month’s article for more). In cases of DUI or other serious offense, the officer will typically effect an arrest. After you are booked in to the jail, you should be given a bond. There are certain exceptions, but the law is designed to favor an individual’s freedom, especially since you are innocent until proven guilty. The bond amount will typically reflect the projected fine amount for the charges you were cited for. However, the charges can be altered or amended any time prior to arraignment.
Arraignment: This is typically your first court date in front of a judge. This is the opportunity to hear the formal charges being presented by the State. Prior to this date, the State Court Solicitor has evaluated the evidence collected by the police and investigators to determine what charges to bring against you. At your arraignment, you are given the opportunity to plead Guilty, Not Guilty or Nolo Contendere (no contest). Prior to making your decision, you will be given the opportunity to pre-try your case with the Solicitor or District Attorney (in Felony cases). An important thing to keep in mind is that your conversation with the Solicitor or DA is not considered private. As you have heard in the movies, anything you say can and will be used against you in court. If you are dealing with a DA, you should always have an attorney. If you are dealing with a solicitor, you have to decide whether or not an attorney can or should represent you. As a general rule, you should seek the assistance of an attorney for any charge that will lead to points on your license or the suspension of your license, or if there was an accident involving injuries.
Not Guilty Plea: If you plead Not Guilty, you will be given a new court date to appear in the future. This will be your opportunity to hear the state present the facts against you before a Judge (Bench Trial) or Jury in order to establish your guilt. You will also be given the opportunity to present your side of the case or any possible defenses you may have.
Guilty Plea or Nolo Contendere: If you do decide to talk to the State about your charges, you will be offered the chance to plead guilty or no contest to some or all of the charges presented against you. The advantage to pleading no contest is that, in some cases, this can protect you from getting points on your license and increased insurance premiums. This is discretionary and the state does not have to let you plead no contest. In addition, the judge can decline to accept any no contest plea. It can only be used once every five years for similar charges. Speeding and Failure to Yield are two different charges and you can plead no contest to both inside a five year period. Consider this decision well, because once your guilty plea is entered, the decision is final. There are some very specific exceptions, but it will be very expensive to undo. At least once a month I get a call from someone who has changed their mind about their guilty plea. Its better to call an attorney before your plea, as there is almost nothing we can do after.