When Should I Call a Criminal Lawyer?
If you find yourself asking, “When should I call a criminal lawyer?”, chances are that the answer is, “Now.” The issue of whether or not to call a criminal lawyer isn’t the same as being ambivalent about going to the doctor when you’ve stepped in a hole and suspect you’ve sprained your ankle. Applying an ice pack, staying off your feet, and seeing if you recover can be preferable to the hassle of making a doctor’s appointment or cooling your jets in the urgent care waiting room. More often than not, asking, “Should I call a criminal lawyer” is akin to having searing chest pain and asking if a trip to the emergency room is in order. Yes. Period.
That aside, there are instances where the timing of calling a criminal lawyer might seem a bit fuzzy. Typically, that’s an illusion; it’s rarely too soon to call a criminal lawyer. Nevertheless, let’s review some circumstances that can be illustrative.
Pre-Charge Criminal Investigations
People often question whether they should call a criminal lawyer if they haven’t yet been charged with a crime. The unequivocal answer is, yes. Anyone who’s watched a police procedural on TV is aware of the Miranda warning given to those who have been charged with a crime: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
The key here is that only people who have been charged with a crime are Mirandized. There is often a lot of police questioning that takes place prior to a suspect being charged and taken into custody. If you’re asked by the police to come in for an “interview,” you may be tempted to do so – if only because you’re innocent and want to clear your good name. Resist that temptation. In this pre-charge phase, you don’t get a Miranda warning but anything you say can and will be used against you.
It’s common – and legal – for detectives to mislead you during the pre-charge investigative phase. They may insinuate that you’ve done something illegal or tell you that someone you know has implicated you in a crime. They’ll often say what’s necessary to get you to incriminate yourself or someone else. Investigators may work in “good cop, bad cop” teams or may use a carrot-and-stick approach, promising to reward you for cooperation or threatening you with charges for non-cooperation.
If you’re asked to come in for a police “interview” and wonder, “When should I call a criminal lawyer?” you should do so before you say a word to the authorities. A criminal attorney can act as an intermediary between you and the authorities. They can decline the interview without you having to say a (potentially incriminating) word.
If for some reason an interview is in your best interest, then a criminal attorney can be present during the interview and advise you which questions are acceptable and when you should plead the Fifth Amendment. In the process, the criminal attorney will be able to get a read on what the investigators are after, what information or evidence they might have, and what your options are in the near future and beyond. This will be greatly beneficial if you are ultimately charged with a crime.
Covert Criminal Investigations
Criminal investigations can also lurk under the radar. You may be the target of a criminal investigation, the subject of one, or even a witness to one – and not even know it. While you could have considerable legal liability as the target or the subject of a criminal investigation, even witnesses can require legal assistance to navigate grand jury testimony or interviews by investigators. Those investigators could be police officers, district attorneys, or federal prosecutors. As soon as such an investigation is on your radar, your first call should be to a criminal defense attorney. You can bet that the criminal defense lawyer will be the only person – other than you – with your best interests at heart. While an attorney can’t accompany you into the room when you’re compelled to give grand jury testimony, they can tell you what to expect, provide guidance about your testimony, and debrief you afterwards. They can even enter into joint defense agreements with other witnesses, subjects, or targets to share information. This can be critical as your role in the investigation becomes more defined.
Almost by definition, a search warrant takes you off-guard. One definite answer to the question, “When should I call a criminal lawyer?” is “when you’ve been served with a search warrant.” A search warrant is essentially a permission slip, signed by a judge, that allows the police or investigators to look for evidence of a crime. A search warrant can be issued for your home, your office, your storage locker, your car, your computer, or another place that the judge has probable cause to believe contains evidence of criminal activity.
Search warrants can be issued for a number of different suspected crimes. For example, if investigators believe that you’re in possession of stolen property, that can trigger the issuance of a search warrant. If it’s believed that you’ve committed a felony – like harming another person – a search warrant can be issued to ascertain corroborating evidence or a weapon. The suspicion of possessing child pornography can be cause for a search warrant, as can the belief that something in a person’s possession will be used to commit a crime.
It’s important to note that search warrants can’t be fishing expeditions. They have to contain detailed information about what, exactly, can be searched and what, exactly, can be seized. A search warrant has to be executed in a timely fashion (within ten days of being issued), and there are limits to the time of day that a search warrant can be executed. Typically, a search warrant can be served between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., though a judge can make exceptions.
Let’s say you’re at home when officers show up with a search warrant. In California, they are supposed to prioritize protecting innocent people, protecting your privacy, and preventing violent confrontations. They are supposed to knock on your door, announce that they’re police officers, tell you that they have a search warrant, and give you time to open the door. They’re not allowed to force their way in unless you refuse to let them into your house.
There is an exception, which is known as a “no-knock warrant.” A no-knock warrant can be executed if the police officer believes that you will destroy evidence or that you will grab a weapon.
If you’ve been served with a search warrant, there’s not a moment to waste. It’s time to call a criminal lawyer. Step outside of your home, close the door behind you, and ask them to refrain from searching your home or computer until your lawyer arrives. In the best case scenario, they’ll allow you to wait outside until your attorney shows up. In the worst case, they’ll reject your request and conduct the search. If that’s the case, make sure to get and keep a copy of the search warrant. Your criminal lawyer will be able to carefully review it and look for opportunities to challenge the warrant’s validity or the way in which the search was conducted. Down the road, this can pave the way for a motion to suppress the evidence at trial.
Calling a Criminal Lawyer When You’ve Been Arrested
There are times when it might be worthwhile to ask yourself, “When should I call a criminal lawyer?”, but if you’ve been arrested, it’s a no brainer. It’s imperative that you call a criminal defense attorney sooner rather than later. Here are a few of the ways a criminal lawyer can help:
Understanding the charges: You may think you understand the charges against you, but you don’t necessarily know the finer points of the law. For example, the implications for your future are vastly different if you’ve been charged with a felony rather than a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor can lead to probation or jail time and a fine. A felony conviction can restrict your activities for the rest of your life. A criminal lawyer can quickly assess what you’re up against and can guide you toward a resolution with the fewest consequences.
Navigating the bail process: It might seem intuitive that the first thing you want to do after you’ve been arrested is to find someone willing to post bail for you. Resist that impulse. Instead, call a criminal defense attorney who understands the details of the arraignment process. An arraignment is your initial court appearance, when you’ll be read the charges brought against you and be given the opportunity to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Your lawyer will gauge the likelihood that you’ll be released on your own recognizance, which can mean a night or two in jail but no bail. Perhaps your attorney will advise you that the charges have a good chance of being dropped during your arraignment, in which case you’ll be released. If bail is in the cards, your lawyer can argue for a reduction in bail, which – if granted – will result in a lower fee paid to the bail bond agency.
Asking the right questions: If you’ve been arrested, it’s likely that you’re stressed out, flustered, and not thinking clearly. Yet that’s precisely the time when you need to communicate an accurate recollection of the events that led up to your arrest. Your criminal defense attorney is trained to ask the right questions and will meet with you one-on-one to get the whole story. The communication between you and your attorney is privileged, which means that it can’t be used against you in court. In other words, it’s important to tell your lawyer the truth about what you know.
How a Lawyer Can Help with Specific Charges
Now that you know that simply asking the question, “When should I call a criminal lawyer,” almost always demands a response of “now,” you might have questions about how an attorney can help with specific charges. Here are some strategies a criminal lawyer might use in certain situations:
DUI charges: If you’ve been charged with driving under the influence, a criminal defense lawyer can get to work immediately. Perhaps it’s appropriate to hire an investigator to talk to witnesses. Maybe a new blood test should be done. It could be helpful for someone from the legal team to go right to the scene of the accident or arrest to gather additional information.
Juvenile crimes: In most circumstances, charges against children under the age of 18 are adjudicated in juvenile court. Sometimes, though, the severity of the charges leads a court to decide to try a minor as an adult. If the child or teenager is charged with a violent crime or sexual crime, an attorney who is immediately consulted can work to ensure that the minor stays within the juvenile court system and avoids the serious consequences of an adult felony conviction.
Property crimes: California property crimes run the gamut, from simple trespassing to burglary, from malicious mischief to arson. Having an experienced criminal attorney at your side can be helpful in having felony charges reduced to misdemeanors, quashing evidence from illegal searches or improperly executed search warrants, or negotiating your release from jail.
Calling a criminal lawyer is always a good move when you’ve had a run-in with the law. An attorney’s knowledge of the legal system, their relationships with law enforcement and those who work in the courts, and their experience in creating favorable outcomes for clients will all work in your favor. Fighting the criminal justice system on your own sets you up for failure, and relying an overworked court-appointed public defender typically results in a plea bargain and conviction. The only viable option for a rigorous defense and the outcome you deserve is to contact a criminal lawyer as soon as possible.