Accused of a Crime? FAQs for the Accused

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What Does the Phrase ?Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty? Mean?

This phrase means that in criminal trials, accused persons are treated as if they were innocent and did not commit the crime that they are suspected of. This is what courts call the “presumption of innocence,” and helps to prevent abuses of the court system. A criminal defendant will only be subject to criminal penalties if it can be proven through evidence that they committed the crime. 

In other words, it’s not up to you and your lawyer to prove that you are innocent—this is already assumed if criminal charges are filed against you. Instead, the prosecution must provide evidence that shows you are guilty. Just because a person is brought to court does not mean that they are automatically guilty.   

What Does “Standard of Proof” Mean in a Criminal Trial?

In a criminal trial, the “Standard of Proof” refers to the level of certainty with which the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilty. The standard of proof in all criminal trial is known as "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." This means that the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt to the point where there is no doubt that they committed the crime in question. 

To prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt means that all possible doubts about the defendant’s guilt have been removed based on the evidence. If any doubts remain about the defendant’s guilt, they cannot be found guilty.  

Beyond a reasonable doubt is a much higher standard of proof than the one applied in most civil cases.  In civil cases, the standard of proof is usually “preponderance of the evidence”- which means that a person can be held liable only if it is “more likely than not” that they violated the law.  

What Is “Criminal Intent”?

Most crimes can be broken down into two parts:  the physical act, and the mind state of the defendant at the time of the act.  Criminal intent refers to the second part, the defendant’s mind state. In order to be found guilty, most laws require the defendant to have a criminal intent at same time the physical act was committed.  Intent may be further divided into general and specific intent.    

For example, theft (larceny) requires proof that the defendant: 1) physically took another person’s property; and 2) intended to permanently deprive them of the property when they took it.  In this case the first part describes the physical act, while the second part describes the criminal intent.  So, if a person took a person’s cell phone on accident, but did not intend to permanently deprive them of it at the time, they cannot be found guilty of theft.  This is because they lacked the criminal intent at the time of the physical act.  

Thus, a great deal of time can be spent in court trying to prove that a defendant not only physically committed the crime, but that they also had the criminal intent to do so. This rules out most accidental acts.

Do I Have a Right to a Trial by Jury?

Generally, you have a right to a trial by jury if the crime you are charged with is punishable by more than 6 months of imprisonment. Crimes that carry a sentence of less than 6 months are usually considered “petty” crimes—these do not always result in a jury trial. 

The size of a jury can range from 6 to 12 members. Usually, a larger jury sizes are reserved for more serious crimes. The jury’s final decision must usually be unanimous in order to convict a criminal defendant. If a judge decides that the jury may be biased, they may have the trial relocated to a different jurisdiction, and a new jury will be selected.   

How Is a Felony Different from a Misdemeanor?

In general, a felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor and results in more severe criminal penalties. Felony charges are usually punishable by imprisonment in a prison facility for a time period of greater than one year. 

On the other hand, misdemeanors usually result in a sentence of less than one year in a county jail, rather than a prison facility. It is usually more difficult to clear felony from one’s record than it is for a misdemeanor.   

Violations that are punishable by only a monetary fine are usually not considered crimes at all, but are classified as “infractions” (such as a traffic ticket).

Some crimes lie on the borderline of felony and misdemeanor, and can be punished as either one, depending on the case.  Also, some misdemeanors may result in felony charges if the charge is for a repeat offense (such as repeated DUI violations).  Felony charges can also result in the loss of certain rights, like the right to own a firearm.

What Are “Aggravating Factors”?

Aggravating factors are any circumstances surrounding a crime that can transform misdemeanor charges into felony charges. For example, assault is generally considered to be a misdemeanor. However, assault may prosecuted as a felony if it is committed against a child, woman, or police officer. 

Here, the aggravating factor is the commission of the assault against these specific types of persons. The assault charges then become filed as “aggravated assault”, which is considered a felony. This applies to many other types of crimes as well. 

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Accused of a Crime?

If you have been accused of a crime, you definitely have the right to a criminal defense lawyer. Many criminal cases can be complex, so you may need the assistance of an attorney for trial. Your attorney can help answer any question you may have regarding your case.  Experienced criminal attorneys can argue for a reduced sentence, or to get the charges dropped if possible. 

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Last Modified: 06-23-2014 10:03 AM PDT

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