Facing a criminal trial can be a scary and stressful experience. People are often eager to prove their innocence but apprehensive about what may happen in court, if they have to testify on their own behalf, or what other witnesses might say. The best thing you can do to help your case is retain an experienced Florida criminal lawyer, who can help you understand the steps of a trial and assist you through the process. The attorneys at Apfelbaum Law may be able to help you with your criminal trial or any other criminal matter.
Arrest or Notice to Appear
Usually, a criminal case begins with an arrest by a police officer or a Notice to Appear being served to the defendant. An arrest may occur if a police officer witnesses or turns up evidence of a crime, or an investigation produces a probable cause that you have committed a crime.
Rarely, charges will be filed directly by the State Attorney without the direct involvement of a police officer. In this case, the defendant will be a mailed Notice to Appear. If you receive one and fail to appear at the designated date, called an arraignment, the court will probably issue an arrest warrant for you. If you get such a notice, you should seek the advice of an experienced criminal lawyer right away.
Following an arrest, the police will take you to a central booking building, usually at the county jail. This is where they take a booking photo, inventory your possessions, and process you into the facility. Sometimes, people end up with additional charges at this point if contraband—usually drugs or unregistered weapons—is found in their possession. If this happens, it’s a good idea to remember that you have the right to remain silent to consult an attorney prior to questioning. Wait until you have a chance to speak with a criminal attorney before speaking with law enforcement.
Depending on the offense, you may be able to “make bail” if you can have someone come to bail you out. If you aren’t bailed out during your first day in jail, a judge will review your bond within 24 hours of your arrest. This is called a First Appearance. At this time, the judge has the ability to review the amount set for your bond and change it if they deem it appropriate. The judge will also explain what charges you are facing and any restrictions on your bond—for example, you may not be allowed to leave town, be required to surrender your passport, etc.
At an arraignment hearing, you will enter a plea—not-guilty, guilty, or no contest. Generally, your attorney will submit your not-guilty plea in writing. This may provide your attorney with more time to work on your case. You might not have to attend the arraignment hearing, but check with your criminal attorney before skipping it.
When the prosecutor thinks they have enough evidence to win the criminal case, they file formal charges, also called an “Information.” This lists the exact charge or charges they plan to prosecute. Keep in mind that these charges may be more or less serious than what was shown in the original arrest report. Sometimes, while working on their case, the prosecutor may decide they have enough evidence for a stronger charge. Conversely, they might decide they don’t have enough evidence for the original charge, but may still file lesser charges. For example, they may realize it would be hard to prove a drug trafficking or dealing charge, but still prosecute you for possession. If the prosecutor chooses not to file formal charges, an information isn’t filed and the case would be considered abandoned.
Around the time your plea is filed, your criminal lawyer will file a Notice of Discovery and a Demand for Jury Trial, typical documents that are filed in the majority of cases. A Notice of Discovery triggers a duty by the prosecutor to provide your attorney with a copy of every single piece of evidence they have, and vice versa—your lawyer will also give the prosecutor available evidence. Evidence may include police reports, witness statements, and documents. Criminal court doesn’t allow surprises—both sides need to know what evidence the other side has.
Depending on your location and situation, you may be eligible for an Early Resolution Program, such as Pretrial Intervention or Drug Court. In this event, an attorney working for the state reviews the case and, if appropriate, makes a deal with the involved parties. The case ends early, without a trial, and usually with lesser time and cost. However, it’s important to realize that this may not be a program that would wipe away the charges. Your deal may involve required conditions and a criminal record. You and your Florida criminal attorney should discuss whether the benefits of avoiding a trial and guaranteeing the outcome outweigh the resulting criminal record and other requirements.
Another option that avoids a trial is the Pretrial Intervention Program (PIP). These are frequently offered to first time offenders, non-violent offenders, and people dealing with drug charges. Usually, the State Attorney’s office has a representative who reviews cases for PIP eligibility. If you are found to be eligible, you will have to meet various requirements, which may include attending drug court, rehab, or other drug counseling services, making financial restitution to victims, etc. Generally, if you complete the PIP, your charges will be dismissed.
Motion to Suppress
If the trial goes forward, you and your attorney will discuss options for fighting the charges. This may lead to consideration of the circumstances of your arrest. There are sometimes situations where the police don’t follow the law or required procedures when collecting evidence. Examples could include improper search of your house, car, or person, or seizure of confidential documents without a subpoena. There are also many established procedures that should be followed during DUI stops.
If you and your attorney identify a problem with how evidence was gathered, your lawyer may file a Motion to Suppress Evidence. This will lead to a hearing. If your motion is successful, certain evidence and/or statements may be “excluded” or kept off the case by the court, as if it never existed. In some cases, a successful hearing can cause the case to be completely dismissed; or, the prosecutor may decide they can’t move forward without the excluded evidence, and drop the case.
At the pretrial hearing, the prosecutor and your attorney will discuss the case. In some cases, plea offers may be discussed, accepted, or refused. Judges often encourage deals during pretrial hearings because their calendar is overloaded. If you are able to reach a deal, your case could be finalized at the pretrial. There could also just be a sentencing hearing set.
Frequently, the attorneys discuss what stage they are at in the Discovery process and if there are any difficulties. Discovery usually hasn’t been completed by the first pretrial. Additionally, the prosecutor may not have filed formal charges by the date of the pretrial.
It’s common for the judge to schedule another pretrial date. You may have multiple pretrial hearings, although, eventually, the judge will insist on setting the final trial date.
A deposition is a good trial preparation, but is often expensive. Victims, witnesses, and testifying experts may be questioned during a deposition. There is no judge and no jury. Only your attorney, the State Attorney, and the person to be questioned will be present the answer under oath.
During the deposition, your attorney can learn exactly how someone plans to answer at trial, without the judge or jury hearing the results. Those answers can be challenged, expanded upon, and tested for weaknesses. You and your attorney can later discuss the answers, and you may notice a way to refute or defend against them. A deposition may also reveal weak parts of the case against you.
Eventually, if there is not a plea or other pretrial resolution, you will proceed to trial, where the goal is to influence a group of jurors. After you decide to go to trial, the chances of the prosecutor offering a deal are much lower. There are two possible outcomes: a not-guilty or guilty verdict. The guilty verdict will most likely come with consequences more severe than an early plea settlement would have brought.
However, sometimes a trial is still a good option. During the trial, your attorney and the prosecutor will present witnesses, documents, and physical evidence. Due to your constitutional rights, you don’t have to testify unless you so choose. You and your attorney will likely discuss the pros and cons of taking the stand in your own defense. In some cases, your attorney may advise against it, as it could afford the prosecutor the opportunity to twist your words or trick you into saying things that make you look bad. But in some cases, you and your lawyer may decide testifying is in your best interest.
At the end of the trial, the jury will deliberate, and after they reach a conclusion, the verdict will be read to the court.
If you lose at trial, the judge will usually sentence you immediately for misdemeanors. For felony convictions, there is often a separate sentencing hearing. At that hearing, evidence may be presented to argue for a harsher or less harsh sentence, within the Florida sentencing guidelines.
If you need assistance with your criminal trial, or have questions about any potential legal matter, please contact Apfelbaum Law for a consultation. We have offices in Port St. Lucie and Stuart, but provide legal services throughout the Treasure Coast and Florida.