If you are one of the millions of Americans that have been arrested for a criminal offense, then you know that debilitating feeling all too well. Few events are more concerning and problematic than dealing with an arrest and the possible fallout. Fortunately, arrests are not final dispositions. You are presumed innocent under the United States and Florida Constitutions, and the State must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Florida law allows for you to defend against any charges that stem from your arrest, and to potentially have your case resolved in your favor or at least on terms that you can live with. Let’s take a look at some critical steps that you should take if you are arrested in Florida to avoid worsening your situation.
Know Your Miranda Rights
Typically, once you are in custody or arrested, the police may seek to question you about the events that led to your arrest. You may have seen law enforcement on television telling arrested persons that they have the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. This type of statement is a warning – a Miranda warning. What you may not know is that Miranda warnings are only required when you are in police custody (e.g., under arrest) while being subjected to their interrogation of you. If the police begin asking you questions while you are in their custody without them first reading you a Miranda warning, then any incriminating statements that you make to them may not be used against you in a criminal proceeding. So, if you have been arrested and the police want you to talk, then you should be made aware of your right to refuse to answer their questions and your right to have an attorney present. It is generally not in your best interest to speak to the police without consulting with a lawyer.
Retaining A Lawyer
As soon as possible, you should retain a qualified defense attorney who can guide you through this mess. Retaining an attorney before speaking with the police makes a lot of sense if you want to avoid saying something that you may regret – something which can really hurt your case. Most criminal defense attorneys solely represent those who are accused of offenses – and those attorneys are often knowledgeable about the criminal justice system and your rights. You might think that you don’t need an attorney – but gambling with your freedom is not worth the risk. You owe it to yourself to at least speak with an attorney to see how they can help you.
First Appearance and Pretrial Release
As an arrested person in Florida, you are entitled to appear before a judge within 24 hours. At this hearing, which is called the first appearance, you will be informed of the charges against you and advised of your rights. After reviewing the evidence against you and hearing argument from the prosecutor and the defense attorney, the judge will either set bail, release you subject to pretrial supervision, or release you with a summons to appear back in court at a later date.
However, depending on the circumstances, you might not be granted bail at first appearance (e.g., you are accused of murder or another offense punishable by life in prison). With most minor offenses, you may be released simply on a low monetary bond, supervision, or a promise to return to court once charges have been filed against you.
Basically, setting bail means that the court determines how much money you must pay to ensure that you will answer to the offenses (e.g., appear for future court proceedings or stand trial). If you post your own bail and do what the law requires, you get your bail money back less fees or costs. However, most people secure the service of a bondsman to post their bail. Bondsmen post the entirety of the bail in exchange for a 10% fee.
It is important to hire a Florida criminal defense attorney to represent you at your first appearance. An experienced attorney can help get you released from jail on conditions that allow you to rejoin your family, keep your job, and continue living your life as normally as possible while your charges are pending.
In federal court, a person’s conditions of release are determined at a hearing called an initial appearance. This will be discussed in length in a separate blog.
After your arrest, the prosecutor will weigh evidence that has been submitted to them by the police who arrested you. Next, the prosecutor makes a decision on whether to pursue formal criminal charges against you. It is important to note that not all arrests result in formal criminal charges. The prosecutor typically will only pursue criminal charges if they believe that there is sufficient evidence to convict you.
Your Florida criminal defense attorney should start working for you right away to make sure that the prosecutor has all the information it needs when it decides whether it’s appropriate to file formal charges. Among other things, this involves investigating the case, speaking with witnesses, researching legal issues, and speaking with the prosecutor.
During this step, you will be required to enter a plea to the charges against you. You have several options: plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Each plea has its own consequences and will affect how your case will proceed. Most defendants at this stage plead not guilty to preserve their right to go to trial or to engage in negotiations with the prosecutor. You might plead not guilty to buy yourself and your attorney much-needed time to determine if you should later plead guilty or no contest.
In some cases, it may be in your best interest to engage in negotiations with the prosecutor to resolve the charges against you. This is typically known as plea bargaining. In exchange for a guilty or no contest plea, the prosecutor may be willing to lessen the charges against you or seek a reduced sentence.
Negotiated plea bargains (also known as plea agreements) still must be approved by a judge. If the judge does not approve of the deal, then the case may ultimately end up going to trial. Before you enter into a plea bargain, it is vital that you understand what you are agreeing to and the consequences of foregoing trial. Critically, if the judge approves the plea bargain, there will not be a trial, and the terms of the plea deal will become a final order of the court. Except for in cases of your plea deal being induced by fraud or misrepresentation, it may be extremely difficult to have your plea deal thrown out on appeal if you later decide to contest it. An experienced criminal defense attorney will negotiate the best possible plea and properly inform you of the rights you are giving up by taking the plea.
In other cases, your attorney may negotiate a diversion agreement or pretrial intervention program. Pursuant to these agreements and programs, you maintain your plea of not guilty and agree to complete a series of conditions (e.g., community services). If you successfully complete the program, the prosecutor will drop the charges against you.
It’s important to remember that you are presumed innocent. You are entitled to have your day in court – to bring your case to trial. Here, the prosecutor and your defense attorney will each have a chance to present evidence and make arguments. The prosecutor has the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A decision as to whether you are guilty will be made by a judge or a jury – and you have the right to a jury trial. Trial verdicts are final dispositions which means that this will typically conclude the matter. If you are found not guilty, you can never be tried again for this crime based on the same facts. However, if the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, then your case results in a hung jury. If this happens, then you may have to deal with a new trial.
If you are found guilty, the next step in the process is sentencing. Specifically, the judge will decide on the punishment for the crime that you have been convicted of. The prosecutor and your defense attorney will present evidence relevant to the sentence that they seek. Obviously, your defense attorney will aim for your sentence to be as lenient as possible. Judges have latitude in the sentences that they impose. A sentence may include jail (or prison), probation, fines, or a combination of them.
If you have been incarcerated throughout the duration of your trial, then depending on the offense, the court may sentence you to time served which means that you will be immediately set free. For example, if your punishment is two years behind bars but you have been incarcerated on that offense for two years already, then the court might consider you to have done your time.
Your criminal defense attorney should fight for a sentence that fairly reflects who you are and the circumstances surrounding the criminal charges. It is critical that your defense attorney not only understand what legal arguments to make at sentencing but also how to present information that would mitigate or reduce your sentence.
Trials that result in criminal convictions can be appealed. What this means is that if legal errors occurred during your trial, then you may have your conviction overturned. You may also be able to appeal the sentence that the judge has imposed. Appeals are done through written documents that are submitted to a panel of appeals judges. Generally, the strength of your appeal will depend on the groundwork that your trial attorney has done, so it is important to make sure your criminal defense attorney understands how work at the trial level will shape your appeal. The judges will go over the trial evidence and the appeal documents before making a finding. You must file a notice of appeal within 30 days of your sentencing. The law places limits on when appeals can be filed. Appeals submitted after a certain time may be barred.
West Palm Beach, Florida Criminal Defense Attorneys
Being arrested and subsequently charged with a crime is a real serious problem for you. But going through the criminal justice processes unrepresented (or underrepresented) is a risky and ill-advised proposition that can exacerbate your situation. The law allows for you to have representation throughout every step of the criminal justice process. The smart play is to retain the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney who will vigorously fight for your rights and pursue the best-case scenario for you.
Getting an attorney involved early is critical for building a viable defensive strategy. Law Offices of Greg Rosenfeld has extensive experience protecting the rights of Florida clients who have been charged with criminal offenses. Call (561) 902-1122 or contact us online for a free consultation regarding your case.