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Apr 24, 2019

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?

If you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, or anywhere else in the Bay Area, you know that you need a criminal lawyer. Still, you might be asking, “What does a criminal lawyer do?” That’s a reasonable question, especially since most people’s familiarity with criminal law comes from watching television shows with a legal slant.

Different Types of Attorneys

Before delving into the role that a criminal lawyer will play in your case, it’s helpful to know that not all lawyers are criminal attorneys. There are many different kinds of attorneys who specialize in certain types of law. Here are a few examples:

Personal Injury: A personal injury attorney represents people who have been hurt. The injury could be the result of a car accident, a property owner’s negligence, or a manufacturer’s faulty product. The attorney files civil lawsuits in order to get monetary compensation for their clients.

Bankruptcy: A bankruptcy attorney represents clients – individuals or businesses – who are having financial problems and who would like to either restructure their debts or wipe the slate clean.

Estate: An estate lawyer draws up wills and trusts for people who want to pass on their assets to their heirs. This type of attorney also helps people with things like advanced medical directives and powers of attorney.

Corporate: A corporate attorney represents a business, and might be involved in forming the corporation, negotiating contracts, and overseeing mergers and acquisitions. They may also work on issues relating to intellectual property rights and securities.

While these types of attorneys have all been to law school and are licensed to practice law, they are not criminal attorneys. The most basic answer to the question, “What does a criminal lawyer do?” is that they do everything within their power to defend those accused of violating criminal statutes. That requires a skillset that is quite different from the skills required of personal injury, bankruptcy, estate, and corporate attorneys.

How a Bay Area Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help Before an Arrest

It’s understandable that people associate criminal defense lawyers with trials, but the truth is that a San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense attorney can be of tremendous assistance to you long before a trial – and even before your arrest. Those suspected of a state crime are often aware that they are under investigation by the police. Those who are targets of a federal crime may be notified that a grand jury is considering an indictment. A criminal defense attorney can advise you prior to arrest or indictment and – most importantly – can be present while you are being interrogated by the police. Because you can consult with your lawyer prior to responding to questions, this helps to ensure that you don’t fall into a trap where you incriminate yourself. While your criminal defense attorney can’t be present during federal grand jury proceedings, they can assist you ahead of time by helping you to understand what to expect and how to truthfully respond to questions in a way that’s not self-incriminating.

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do After an Arrest?

A Bay Area criminal lawyer can be extraordinarily helpful following your arrest. Once you’ve been arrested, you will be booked. At that time, you’ll be fingerprinted, your personal property will be confiscated, and you may be placed in a holding cell or you may be released. Either way, the next step is your arraignment, which will take place within 48 hours if you are held in jail or at least ten days later if you are released. Your arraignment is where you will hear the charges against you. It’s important to note that you may be arrested for one crime and be charged with a different crime or with additional crimes. That’s because the prosecutor may have gathered more information in the meantime – such as additional evidence or prior convictions – that impacts the charges.

It’s critical to have your Bay Area criminal defense lawyer at your side during your arraignment. (If you are arrested for certain misdemeanors, your lawyer can actually appear on your behalf at your arraignment.) During that hearing, the judge advises you of your rights and asks for your plea. You can plead, guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendre. Your attorney can also ask for a continuance or, if you are charged with drug possession, can ask for a deferred entry of judgment pending a drug treatment program, after which the charges will be dismissed.

Chances are good that your attorney will advise you to plead “not guilty” at your arraignment. Doing so can be an assertion that you did not commit the crime, that your attorney believes that they will be able to sow the seeds of reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors, or that your lawyer thinks the case against you is solid but that they can negotiate a more favorable plea agreement on your behalf.

The other action a criminal lawyer can take during your misdemeanor arraignment is to challenge the conditions under which you were arrested. If your attorney believes that the police did not have probable cause to stop you, for example, they can request a probable cause hearing. If that challenge is successful, the charges will be dropped.

If you are being held in custody, your San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense attorney will also understand your bail options. You may have a bail hearing prior to your arraignment, or your bail might be set at arraignment. Your criminal defense lawyer can argue for lower bail or for you to be released on your own recognizance. They may assert that the alleged crime isn’t serious, that you aren’t a risk to public safety, and that you have strong ties to the community. In other words, your attorney can argue that you aren’t a flight risk and that you will show up in court at the appointed times.

Your lawyer also understands the seismic changes that will eliminate bail altogether for misdemeanors and most nonviolent felonies beginning in October 2019. A bill signed into law in 2018 gives the court system the authority to reshapes pre-trial detention by devising risk assessment systems designed to level the playing field for those who don’t have the cash to post bail.

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do After Your Arraignment?

Prior to and following your arraignment hearing, your Bay Area criminal defense attorney gathers a great deal of information. They obtain a copy of your arrest record and the investigative file that law enforcement created. They ask you about prior arrests and convictions, and request your criminal record from the jurisdictions where those records were created. They also get copies of other relevant records, which may include your car registration, your driving record, your medical records, and any other documents that might pertain to your case.

Your San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense lawyer also asks you many questions. To obtain the best possible legal defense, it’s crucial that you answer each question completely and honestly. Nothing you say to your attorney can be used against you because your conversations are protected by attorney-client privilege. They want to hear you recount exactly what happened and detailed interactions you had with law enforcement at the time of your arrest. In addition, they want to know about any witnesses to the alleged crime and witness contact information, any alibi you have, and any other information that could be used to exonerate you.

Next comes the investigative phase of your case. Your attorney or your attorney’s investigative team contacts witnesses, combs through records and documents, and carefully examines the police report and the evidence that the prosecutor has against you. They also research the crimes you’re charged with and the relevant caselaw and procedural law. This, along with their experience in similar cases, helps them formulate a case strategy that’s tailored to your specific circumstances.

This case strategy lays the groundwork for pretrial motions. These are arguments that your Bay Area criminal defense attorney makes in the presence of the prosecutor and the judge in an effort to undermine the prosecution’s case. For example, your lawyer might argue that certain physical evidence of your alleged crime should be excluded because it was obtained as a result of an illegal search and seizure. They might argue that admissions you made at the time of your arrest are not admissible because you were not read your Miranda rights. They could assert that the prosecution has insufficient evidence to prevail at trial, and that the case should therefore be dismissed.

Criminal Lawyers and Plea Bargains

The criminal justice system is so inundated that most cases don’t actually go to trial. Instead, a plea agreement is reached between the prosecutor and the accused. You may be asked if you’d like to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a better outcome – such as probation instead of jail time or jail time instead of prison time. You might be asked to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for having other charges dropped. You might be asked to plead guilty to the original charge in exchange for a less severe sentence. Or, you might be asked to agree to certain facts as they pertain to your case in exchange for a lesser charge.

Agreeing to a plea bargain is taking the proverbial bird in the hand as opposed to potentially having two in the bush. While neither the prosecutor nor your Bay Area criminal defense attorney has a crystal ball that can predict a jury’s verdict, an experienced defense lawyer has a deep understanding of the legal technicalities, evidence, and sentencing guidelines that pertain to your case. As a result, they can enter into negotiations with the prosecution that are informed by their experience and your best interests, and can present you with the best possible plea agreement. Only you can decide if you’d prefer the plea agreement to a trial, but your attorney gives you their very best assessment as to the chances of prevailing at trial and the favorability of the available plea agreement.

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do at Trial?

If your case proceeds to trial, your Bay Area criminal defense lawyer identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case against you and determines the defense strategies that have the best chance of planting the seeds of reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.

The first step in your trial is jury selection. During this process, your attorney and the prosecutor have the opportunity to question potential jurors and to dismiss jurors that they feel will be biased or otherwise detrimental to their side. Once the jury selection process is complete, the trial date is set.

At the beginning of your trial, the prosecutor begins by making an opening statement to the jury that lays out the state’s case against you. They may talk about evidence that they have against you and about witness testimony that the jury will hear. Your criminal defense attorney then has the opportunity to make an opening statement, which may outline the holes in the prosecution’s case. Depending on your case strategy, your attorney may waive your right to an opening statement.

Following opening statements, the prosecution presents its case, entering evidence into the court record and calling witnesses to testify. After each witness’ testimony, your attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine the witness and challenge their believability or their recollection. Once the prosecution rests its case, your attorney can present exculpatory evidence and witnesses to show that you did not commit the crime in question. Alternately, they can simply rest the case in the belief that the prosecutor did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. If your attorney does mount a defense, then the prosecution can introduce new evidence or witnesses to contradict your defense. Finally, the prosecution presents its closing argument, which summarizes the evidence it has against you. Your criminal defense lawyer then presents their closing argument regarding why the prosecutor failed to meet the standard for conviction. Next, the jury deliberates. When the jury reaches a verdict, the foreperson reports the results to the court. If the jury does not reach a unanimous verdict, then a mistrial is called.

What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do After Trial?

If you are convicted at trial, then your Bay Area criminal defense lawyer advocates on your behalf at sentencing. This might occur immediately after the verdict is entered or it may happen at a separate hearing. Your attorney collects testimonials about your character, your life, and your importance to your community, and then files a brief with the court that argues for a suspended sentence or a sentence at the lowest end of the sentencing guidelines. Following sentencing, your criminal defense attorney can file an appeal on your behalf.

If you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, or anywhere else in the Bay Area, time is of the essence. You need an experienced San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense attorney at your side. Elliot Silver is that attorney. To schedule a free and confidential case consultation, call Silver Law Firm today.