Most people have very little experience in the criminal justice system and are unfamiliar with the ways a criminal case can be resolved. Regardless of whether you are charged with DWI, assault family violence, theft or a serious felony, virtually every case is resolved by either dismissal, plea or trial. This article gives an overview of each of these ways of resolving a case.
It is important to remember that the first step in any criminal case is gathering the evidence. In a DWI case, for example, your attorney will need to gather the evidence, which includes videos, breath or blood results, breath and blood discovery (the documents that can tell your attorney if the results are reliable), and police reports. Without these documents, a criminal defense attorney will not be able to evaluate a case and advise a client on how to obtain the best possible outcome. The process of gathering evidence can take several months but you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to know what you should expect in your case.
Dismissal of a Criminal Case
The best way to dispose of a case is by dismissal. It is important to remember that generally, only a prosecutor can dismiss a case. Only in rare instances does a judge have the power to dismiss a case (an example might be in extreme cases of prosecutorial misconduct, like when a prosecutor intentionally hides exculpatory evidence). Prosecutors will dismiss cases for legal reasons, like a bad traffic stop or illegal search and factual reasons, like a missing witness or weak evidence.
Although only a prosecutor can dismiss a case, a smart criminal defense attorney can make a dismissal more likely by working to develop legal or factual problems with a case. In a drug case, for example, a criminal defense attorney can show that a search warrant authorizing a search is legally defective, which could cause evidence to be suppressed. Or in an assault family violence case, a criminal defense attorney can obtain a sworn statement from the alleged victim which contradicts the State’s evidence in a way that is fatal to the State’s case, and forces a prosecutor to dismiss.
In a felony case, a dismissal can sometimes be obtained by submitting something known as a grand jury packet. A grand jury packet is provided to the members of a grand jury. A grand jury is composed of members of the community whose job it is to listen to the facts of cases and decide whether or not probable cause exists to “indict” a case (an indictment is a formal accusation). This packet can contain a variety of information to convince the members of the grand jury to not indict a case (called a “no bill”), including letters of character reference, photographs, medical records and even results of a polygraph test. Grand juries in Texas find probable cause in the vast majority of felony cases, but a grand jury packet can sometimes be an effective way to convince them that probable cause does not exist, and that the case should not go any further. If that happens, the case can be dismissed.
A dismissal is the best way to dispose of a case because it is the least risky way of protecting a person’s freedom and record. If a criminal case is dismissed a person will no longer be on bond and under court supervision and will generally be entitled to an expunction.
The most common way criminal cases are resolved is through plea agreement. A typical plea agreement is a deal reached between the defense and prosecution that a defendant will plead guilty (or sometimes “no contest”) to a charge and receive an agreed-upon sentence like probation or jail time. A defendant can usually also plead guilty directly to the judge and have the judge assess a sentence, but it is important to remember that the judge can’t reduce a charge.
A prosecutor has wide discretion in offering a plea agreement. In most cases, he can offer probation or even a reduction of charges. In order to resolve a case, for example, a prosecutor might sometimes be willing to reduce a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Obviously, a plea agreement is not as good as a dismissal and too many attorneys are eager to have their clients plead guilty without thoroughly investigating a case and challenging evidence. Whether or not it is a good idea to accept a plea agreement is based on the strength of the State’s case (and the likelihood of winning a trial), the terms of the plea agreement, and the impact a conviction or deferred adjudication might have on a person’s life. At Ceja Law Firm, once we have all of the evidence and have concluded our investigation, we review all of the evidence with our client in order to help them decide the best course of action for them.
Criminal Case Trial
If a case is not dismissed, and a satisfactory plea agreement cannot be reached, then a case will be set for trial. The goal of a trial is to obtain a verdict of “not guilty” so that a defendant can protect his or her good name and freedom.
In Texas, trials are conducted in front of six jurors in a misdemeanor case and twelve jurors in a felony case. It is always the prosecutor’s burden to prove the charges alleged beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest legal standard. The defendant in a criminal trial does not have to testify (and for strategic reasons, often will not). The phases of the trial are voir dire (jury selection), the guilt-innocence phase, and when applicable, a punishment phase.
Every phase of a trial requires extensive preparation from a criminal defense attorney. In the voir dire stage, for example, a criminal defense attorney should pre-argue his case and discuss important issues in the case with prospective jurors. In an assault-family violence case, a defense attorney might ask prospective jurors if they know someone close to them who has been the victim of domestic violence, or if they tend to always believe the accuser. In the guilt-innocence part of the trial, a prosecutor will need to prepare cross-examinations of the State’s witnesses to challenge their observations and impartiality.
Even where the evidence is not particularly strong in favor of the defense, cases sometimes go to trial because a defendant does not have much to lose and wants to take his or her best shot at an acquittal. In a DWI case, for example, if a case is not dismissed, it is common that a defendant will be offered probation, which would likely be what the result would be even if he takes his chances at trial and loses.
Deciding how to resolve a case is an extremely important decision and should be done after careful consideration. It is the job of the criminal defense attorney to fully investigate a case and then take the time to go over the evidence and possible outcomes with the client. However, a case is resolved, a client should be fully aware of what the evidence looks like and the consequences. If you are charged with any criminal offense, Ceja Law Firm is an excellent choice and can help to guide you through this process.