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What Are Criminal Charges?

Criminal charges are the formal accusations made by government authorities, asserting that the defendant has committed a crime. Of course, every defendant is innocent until proven guilty, but they also have the right to know that they are being accused of a crime.

The defendant is informed of charges through a “charging document”, which contains the charges or “counts” that are being brought against them. Charging documents can take many forms such as:

Thus, criminal charges do not prove a person’s guilt or innocence; they simply inform the person of the pending counts being brought against them. After being informed of charges, the defendant may then enter their plea (i.e., guilty, not guilty, etc.)

What Is a Misdemeanor Criminal Charge?

Misdemeanor charges may be defined as any charge resulting in a jail sentence of up to one year. In the United States federal criminal code, crimes are divided into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. The difference between the two categories varies since misdemeanor crimes have fewer penalties and are considered less serious than a felony.  Some states classify misdemeanors according to the level of seriousness of the crime and place them into different types of classes such as Class A, or Class B misdemeanors.

What Is a Felony Criminal Charge?

Felonies are serious crimes whose classification often depends on the length of the sentence prescribed. In most states, any crime that results in a sentence of one or more years is considered a felony. Misdemeanors are the next classification of crimes, and involve sentences of up to one year maximum. Both felonies and misdemeanors may involve criminal fines, though the fines for felonies are much more than for misdemeanors.

Can a Person be Charged with Multiple Crimes?

Getting charged with multiple crimes can happen. For instance, some charges are very closely linked together. Breaking and entering is often an aspect of most burglary charges, but some jurisdictions may list them as separate charges. This can affect the way that the sentencing is decided for the case. Again, it can depend on each individual case.

How Can Criminal Charges Be Reduced or Dropped?

Under criminal defense laws, criminal charges can sometimes be reduced or dropped. Of course, this will depend on individual state laws, as well as the facts that are involved in each case.  In most cases, a valid defense (such as self-defense or intoxication) may allow the person to receive lesser charges or a lesser sentence. In many instances, charges have been dropped due to lack of evidence. 

Also, it may be possible to have the charges reduced from felony charges to misdemeanor charges. This might happen, for instance if there is not enough evidence to prove a felony charge like aggravated assault, but there is evidence in support of a simple assault charge.  This is common for wobbler charges (charges that can either be charged as felonies or misdemeanors depending on the facts). 

What Is a Plea Bargain?

In a criminal case, a plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense in which the prosecution offers to drop or reduce some charges, or to recommend a certain sentence to the judge, in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest from the defendant. Some of the advantages of plea-bargaining include:

Criminal charges are usually reduced during the plea bargaining negotiations because the prosecution offers the defendant a chance to take a lesser charge if they agree to plea guilty. This reduces the charge and prevents the criminal case from going to trial. On the other hand, a plea bargain also means pleading guilty to a crime, even though the crime may be less severe and/or carries a lighter sentence.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Criminal Charges?

Every criminal defendant has the right to a criminal defense lawyer.  It may be in your best interests to hire your own criminal defense attorney if you need legal help with criminal charges. Your attorney can advise you of your rights as a defendant in a criminal case, and can represent you during the court hearings. Also, your lawyer will be able to assist you in filing for any possible defenses for your case.

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Last Modified: 03-01-2016 10:15 AM PST

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