If I Plan on Pleading Guilty, Do I Still Need a Criminal Lawyer?
If you’ve been caught red-handed and have been charged with a crime, you may wonder, “If I plan on pleading guilty, do I still need a criminal lawyer?” Most of the time, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Infractions in California
There are three classifications of crimes in California: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Traffic tickets are the most common type of infraction. You might receive what’s called a “fix-it ticket” for a brake light that’s not working, an expired car registration, or not having proof of insurance. Typically, you don’t need a criminal lawyer for that type of ticket. In order to rectify a fix-it ticket, you need to have the Certificate of Correction signed, pay a fee, and either take the ticket to court or mail it in. Your case will be dismissed.
If you’ve received a fix-it ticket, there are a few exceptions for which it’s imperative to contact an attorney. If you’re an undocumented immigrant or your visa has expired, for example, a fix-it ticket can snowball into an immigration nightmare. If you are ensnared in the immigration system after receiving a fix-it ticket, then you should contact an immigration lawyer immediately.
If you are pulled over for a moving violation, then you typically sign and receive a traffic ticket. In signing the ticket, you are promising to either appear in court or to pay a fine. In some cases, it might benefit you to consult with an attorney rather than simply mailing in a check. For example, let’s say Jacob is a delivery driver who is pulled over for speeding. A moving violation will add points to his record that impact his eligibility to continue doing his job. Jacob speaks with an attorney who thinks that Jacob has grounds to fight the infraction. Instead of paying the ticket, Jacob notifies the court that he intends to plead not guilty and the court sets a date for his arraignment and trial. Jacob has to deposit what’s called “traffic bail,” which is the fine for the infraction. He’ll get that money back if he’s found not guilty. Or, instead of appearing in court, Jacob and his attorney can opt to present all evidence in writing. When this happens, the officer issuing the ticket also has to provide written evidence, and the case will be decided without a court appearance.
While traffic violations are the most common types of infractions, California law outlines many other types of infractions as well. For example, having an open container of alcohol is an infraction, as is petty theft.
Some charges are considered “wobblers,” meaning that they can be charged as either infractions or misdemeanors. For example, the possession of a fake driver’s license if you’re under 21 can be an infraction or a misdemeanor. The same is true for driving without a valid driver’s license or a revoked or suspended license. In these types of cases, an Oakland criminal defense attorney can often persuade the prosecutor to charge a wobbler as an infraction rather than a misdemeanor. Yes, you may plan on pleading guilty, but it pays to have a criminal lawyer by your side.
Misdemeanors in California
California law enumerates many types of misdemeanors. In the Business and Professions Code, misdemeanors range from contracting without a license to shopping cart theft to selling alcohol to someone under the age of 21. In the Health and Safety Code, possession of a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia are considered misdemeanors. California’s Penal Code outlines many classes of misdemeanors, ranging from resisting arrest to assault with a deadly weapon and from child abuse to possessing burglary tools. Prostitution, lewd conduct in public, and public intoxication are also charged as misdemeanors. The Vehicle Code counts being a habitual traffic offender, hit and run driving, speed contests, and reckless driving as misdemeanors.
If you’ve been arrested on misdemeanor charges, you may think that the arresting officer has all of the evidence they need to convict you. In fact, you may plan on pleading guilty and don’t think it’s worth the trouble of engaging an Oakland criminal defense attorney. The truth is, a criminal defense lawyer can gather information that’s not available to you. For example, you don’t have access to the police reports, but your attorney can obtain copies. You may not realize that the evidence was gathered improperly, and so might not be admissible in court. Without evidence, the prosecution has virtually no chance of conviction. Remember, the prosecution bears the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You are innocent until proven guilty, and you are entitled to a rigorous defense, regardless of whether or not you committed the crime of which you’re accused.
As with infractions, some misdemeanor crimes in California are considered wobblers, and can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. Depending on the crime, a misdemeanor conviction can result in probation, while a felony conviction can mean the loss of your freedom, your livelihood, and maybe even your family. A Bay Area criminal defense attorney can work to convince the prosecutor to file lesser charges so that you’ll have less on the line.
Felonies in California
Just as there are a variety of misdemeanors in California, there are numerous felony crimes. Generally speaking, they can be categorized as crimes against people and crimes against property. Felonies against people include:
- Robbery: Stealing from another person
- Assault: Attempting to hurt another person
- Battery: Hurting another person
- Homicide: Causing the death of another person
- Kidnapping: Abducting another person
- Sexual Crimes: These encompass a variety of crimes, such as rape, pimping and pandering, child molestation, and unlawful sexual intercourse
Felonies against property include:
- Arson: Setting fire to property or wildlands
- Burglary: Stealing from a dwelling or structure
- Embezzlement: Taking money or property from an entity or individual
- Forgery: Falsifying documents
- Extortion: Obtaining something by force or by threat
- Identity theft: Purporting to be someone else in order to get goods, services, or credit
Felonies can have a devasting impact on your future, your finances, and your freedom. Even if you think you plan to plead guilty to a felony, you need an experienced Bay Area criminal defense attorney at your side. The criminal justice process is complex, and there are several points at which your attorney’s actions can lead to a more favorable outcome.
The Criminal Justice Process
If you are arrested for a misdemeanor or a felony, you shouldn’t say a word to the authorities. When they tell you that anything you say can and will be used against you, believe them. Even if you think that you’re going to plead guilty, you should refrain from saying anything other than you’d like to have your attorney present for questioning. Then you should call a seasoned Oakland criminal defense lawyer to represent you. They can be at your side and advise you so that you do not incriminate yourself while you are interrogated by the authorities.
Between your arrest and your arraignment, your attorney can work with the prosecutor in an attempt to lessen the charges. The importance of this negotiation can’t be overstated. Think about the differences in penalties between a felony and a misdemeanor. For example, sexual battery might be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. A felony conviction can lead to up to four years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. That’s much different than, say, a simple battery misdemeanor conviction that leads to probation, a suspended fine, and a dozen hours of community service.
In the same vein, a misdemeanor conviction for driving under the influence can mean fines of more than $2,000, 10 to 15 days of supervised work, license suspension, DUI class, and the installation of an interlock ignition device. In contrast, a conviction for a misdemeanor “wet reckless” charge keeps a DUI off of your record, lowers the fine, and lets you keep your license.
The bottom line? Even if you plan to plead guilty to a crime, it doesn’t mean that you have to plead guilty to the more serious crime. Your Bay Area criminal defense attorney can guide you through the process, negotiate a deal with the prosecutor, and present you with your options.
The charges you face is only one area where having an experienced attorney can make a difference. Your Bay Area criminal defense lawyer can also intervene when it comes to your sentence. While the judge in your case has the ultimate authority to mete out punishment, plea agreement negotiations can include your proposed sentence. If the district attorney advocates for a reduced sentence, then the judge is more likely to agree.
Rethinking Your Plea
Prior to speaking with an attorney, you may be convinced that you’re going to plead guilty to the charges against you. Once you have a Bay Area criminal defense attorney at your side, however, you may rethink that decision. Generally speaking, it’s better to enter a “not guilty” plea at your arraignment. That gives your attorney room to negotiate, but it also gives them the opportunity to review the evidence against you. Your attorney can also conduct an independent investigation to, for example, establish an alibi.
You may ultimately plead guilty to a lesser charge, or your attorney may uncover problems with the prosecutor’s case against you. If issues surface, your attorney may leverage that information to have the charges dropped, may argue before the judge that evidence is inadmissible in court, or may recommend that you go to trial.
While the defense your attorney mounts depends upon the specific circumstances of your case, they may argue that you were falsely accused by the victim, that it was a case of mistaken identity, of that you were acting in self-defense. They could posit a procedural defense, saying that you were the victim of an illegal search or that you were a victim of entrapment. Again, depending upon the situation, they could argue that you didn’t intend to commit a crime, that the witnesses against you are unreliable, or simply that the prosecution doesn’t have the evidence to support its case.
Keep in mind that, if you plead guilty from the outset, your options are limited. If you initially plead not guilty, then you have wiggle room for later plea negotiations. In California, four out of five criminal cases are traffic infractions. About ten percent of non-traffic misdemeanor cases go to trial; 63 percent of the remaining cases are pled out before trial and 37 percent are dismissed or otherwise disposed of.
Only about three percent of felony cases go to trial. Of the remainder, two out of three result in negotiated felony plea deals, 16 percent result in negotiated misdemeanor guilty pleas, and 18 percent result in acquittals, dismissals, and transfers.
These numbers reveal the importance of having a stellar Bay Area criminal defense attorney at your side. With the help of an attorney, there’s an excellent chance that you can achieve the best possible outcome in your case. When you ask, “If I plan on pleading guilty, do I still need a criminal lawyer?”, your answer should be “Yes.”