Author’s note from Attorney Howard Iken: The article discusses the importance of acting quickly and securing legal representation when facing criminal charges. It explains the consequences of a criminal conviction, the three institutions that make up the American criminal justice system, the stages of Florida criminal charges, and the role of the grand jury. It also provides common defenses to criminal charges and statutes of limitation. The article emphasizes the need for an experienced criminal defense attorney to navigate the complex legal system and protect the rights of the accused.
According to the FBI, more than 12 million arrests were made in 2012. Of those arrests, more than 520,000 were for violent crimes, and 1,646,212 were for property crimes. The highest number of arrests were for drug-related crimes, often crimes that harmed no one other than the person arrested. From 1994 to 2014—two decades—the per capita crime rate in the state of Florida for murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and forcible sex offenses actually decreased.
Of course, no one ever expects the day will come when they will be forced to call a criminal defense attorney, but unfortunately, many adults in the Sunshine State will find themselves doing just that. Being accused of a criminal offense can be an extremely frightening experience. Perhaps you actually did commit the crime, however, there may have been extenuating circumstances. Perhaps you are truly innocent. Eyewitness identifications are notoriously inaccurate, and there have been instances where the police believed they had the right person so fiercely they neglected to conduct a thorough investigation.
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In fact, an Ohio study concluded as many as 10,000 people in the United States could be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each and every year. Whether innocent or guilty, our current justice system places anyone accused of a crime at a distinct disadvantage as they face a jury quick to presume guilt and a state prosecutor with deep resources. Few defendants will actually walk into a courtroom with a level playing field. There are any number of criminal offenses, including:
- White-collar crimes;
- Domestic violence;
- Child abuse;
- Assault and battery;
- Murder and attempted murder;
- Sex crimes;
- Robbery, burglary, theft;
- Kidnapping, and
- Other violent crimes.
The Need for Quick Action When Criminal Charges Are Filed
If you have been charged with a criminal offense, you must act quickly. Hoping your charges will go away on their own is naïve, and almost never happens. The police will not delay their investigation while you secure legal representation, so time is of the essence. There will come a point when you will have a bail hearing when a judge will decide whether you will be allowed to post bond and be released until your trial. In some instances, bail is denied, which means you could find yourself behind bars for a very long time, as the wheels of justice really do turn slowly. Facing criminal charges is difficult and stressful, and even more so if you are doing so on your own.
The Consequences of a Criminal Conviction Aside from Criminal Penalties
Depending on the crime you are charged with, there is a wide array of criminal penalties you could face, including jail or prison, probation, fines, and mandatory drug or alcohol programs or counseling. Additionally, you could face one or more of the following if you are convicted of a criminal offense:
- You could lose your driving privileges;
- You could have a permanent criminal record which affects your ability to obtain employment;
- Your reputation could be ruined in your community or with family and friends;
- You could lose your right to own a firearm;
- Your insurance could skyrocket if your crime is DUI or reckless driving;
- You could be unable to obtain a federal student loan, or
- You could be unable to obtain a professional license.
The Three Institutions Which Make up the American Criminal Justice System
Three major institutions make up our American criminal justice system. These three institutions are law enforcement, the court system and corrections. The rights of the accused and convicted are, in theory, protected during each state of the process. The Miranda advisement as well as the Fourth Amendment prohibit law enforcement from being overzealous in their search for justice. Overreaching and abuses of the law are ostensibly prohibited under our system, including the execution of unreasonable searches and seizures. This stops police officers from searching a suspect, his home or his vehicle without a warrant—except when extenuating circumstances are present.
The court system is also bound by certain restrictions when prosecuting a case. To name a few, defendants have the right to confront their accuser, the right against self-incrimination, the right to legal counsel, and the right to a jury trial. The goal of these rights given to defendants is a fair trial. The United States corrections system administers probation, incarceration, or a combination of both. Supervised or unsupervised probation may be ordered, and incarceration is the most common outcome for more serious criminal offense convictions. Jails are usually located in counties reserved for less serious offenders. Prisons are state institutions, usually, and almost always involve a sentence of more than a year and a serious felony offense.
Stages of Florida Criminal Charges
If the police suspect you are involved in criminal activity, an investigation will take place. During this investigation, law enforcement will do their best to amass evidence against you, with a goal of a conviction. Witness interviews will be conducted, and if the police feel there is sufficient evidence, you may be arrested. You will appear for your bond hearing and should bail be denied, you could be forced to remain in jail. You will appear for your arraignment, during which you will enter a plea of not guilty. Next, you will be required to go before a judge for your preliminary hearing. The prosecutor must show there is ample evidence to warrant a trial during this preliminary hearing.
If the prosecutor meets that burden, a plea bargain may be offered. A plea bargain generally offers to reduce the charges, drop some of many charges, or agree to a lesser sentence in return for your guilty plea. If a plea bargain is not offered—or accepted—your case will be bound over for trial. While this is the “general” sequence of events, there are other scenarios. Your criminal investigation could end with no arrest. You could be arrested and charged, then later have those charges dismissed due to illegally seized evidence or other mistakes made by the police. You could enter a plea bargain and receive a much lighter sentence.
You could go through the trial and be acquitted of the crime you were accused of. Obviously, the worst-case scenario is a conviction by a jury and a long prison sentence. The outcome of your particular criminal case can depend on a number of factors, including the crime being charged, the strength of the evidence, whether proper procedures were followed by law enforcement, the experience and knowledge of your criminal defense attorney, and the goals and strategy of the government.
Statutes of Limitation
The statutes of limitation prohibit prosecutors from charging you with a crime that was committed more than a specific number of years ago. The theory behind the statutes of limitation is to ensure physical evidence or eyewitness memories have not deteriorated over time. Once the statutes of limitation have run, you are essentially free, even if you committed the crime. The exception to the statutes is for the crime of murder. There is no statutes of limitation for the crime of murder in any state in the United States. Some states also have no statutes of limitation on the following crimes: sex offenses with a minor, crimes of violence, kidnapping, arson and forgery. It is generally a requirement that a suspect remain in the state, employed and visible, otherwise if the suspect is considered a fugitive, out of state where the crime was committed or living in hiding, the statutes are suspended.
The Role of the Grand Jury
While a Grand jury is similar to a “regular” jury, the job of the Grand jury is to determine whether charges should be filed against a suspect. The grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence, rather only whether there is sufficient evidence to base charges on. A grand jury can have as many as 23 members and doesn’t require a unanimous decision, usually only a simple majority. While regular juries serve in public trials, grand juries meet secretly. The prosecutor gives grand jury members a “bill” of charges, then presents evidence and witnesses in order to obtain an indictment. If the grand jury indicts, a “true bill” is issued. If they do not indict, a “no bill” is issued. Even if the grand jury refuses to indict, the prosecutor can present to a new grand jury or file criminal charges regardless.
Common Defenses to Criminal Charges
The burden of proof is on the prosecutor in a criminal trial, meaning your guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Defenses can be split into two fairly broad categories—I didn’t do it or I did it but shouldn’t be held responsible. The “I didn’t do it” category can be further broken down as follows:
- You are innocent until proven guilty under the American justice system. This means the judge and jury are required to assume you are innocent until they are clearly shown otherwise. The Fifth Amendment allows a person accused of a crime to remain silent and to offer not one shred of evidence to support a claim of innocence. In other words, while you will certainly want to present any and all evidence of your innocence, you are not required to do so. The prosecutor in your case has the burden of proof to show beyond a reasonable doubt you committed the crime you are accused of.
- You have an alibi. The primary way to show you didn’t commit the crime is to prove you were somewhere else at the time the crime was committed. Once you show the jury it is likely you were not at the scene, you have created reasonable doubt.
The “I did it but shouldn’t be held responsible,” defense encompasses the following defenses:
- You were defending yourself when the crime occurred. Self-defense is an often-used defense among those charged with some sort of physical violence. As the defendant, if you can demonstrate you were the victim rather than the aggressor and were protecting yourself from harm, you may create reasonable doubt. It should be noted that proving self-defense can be difficult, as you must show self-defense was necessary and that your response was a reasonable one. As an example, if a person threatened to kick you and you shot and killed him, it is unlikely your response would be considered reasonable.
- While it makes a good movie or television show, the insanity defense is rarely used. Because insanity can be somewhat abstract, and because judges and jurors tend to be skeptical of an insanity defense, it is difficult to prove. The insanity defense claims a person didn’t understand what they were doing when they committed the crime or was not able to distinguish between right and wrong, therefore must not possess the mental state to defend against the charges.
- In some cases, a defendant may claim he or she was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, therefore did not know what they were doing. Only a handful of states allow this defense, and, at best, it is only a partial defense.
- If a government official induced you to commit a crime (typically in a prostitution sting or drug sales), you may be able to claim entrapment as your defense. If the judge or jury believes you were likely to commit those crimes in any event, the entrapment defense probably won’t work very well.
Means, Motive, and Opportunity
The motive for your crime will absolutely matter to a jury. If they can see you had good reason to commit the criminal offense you are much less likely to be convicted of the crime. Conversely, the prosecutor may be able to convict more readily if he can show you had a motive to commit the crime. Motive indirectly shows something was done intentionally or knowingly. We often hear the phrase “means, motive, and opportunity,” as the three aspects of a crime that must be established before guilt can be determined. “Means,” refers to your ability to commit the crime, “motive” refers to the reason you committed the crime, and “opportunity” refers to whether you had the chance to commit the crime you are accused of.
If you have a valid alibi, then the opportunity can be disproved. While the motive is not strictly an element of the crime, it makes it much easier to convince a jury to convict if a motive can be shown. Means could include whether you have the physical strength to commit the crime, owned a vehicle that allowed you to drive to the scene of the crime, etc. Even when all three of these elements are present, the prosecutor must still provide actual evidence you committed the crime.