A criminal charge is a formal accusation which is made by a government authority and asserts that a defendant has committed a criminal offense. Every defendant is, of course, innocent until proven guilty.
Defendants also have the right to be notified that they are being accused of committing a crime. This is done by a charging document, which informs a defendant of the charges, sometimes referred to as counts, being brought against them.
A charging document many come in different forms, including:
A criminal charge does not provide a defendant’s guilt or innocence, it simply informs the individual of any pending counts which are being brought against them. After a defendant is informed of the charges against them, they may enter a plea, such as:
- Not guilty; or
What is a Misdemeanor Criminal Charge?
Criminal offenses are typically categorized as misdemeanors and felonies. The differences include the severity of the offenses as well as the possible punishments a defendant may face.
A misdemeanor charge is a category of criminal charge which may result in a jail sentence of up to one year or less and a relatively small criminal fine. It is important to note that each state may classify misdemeanor criminal offenses differently.
In some states, classes may be categorized as Class A, Class B, Class C, etc. or Class 1, Class 2, or Class 3, etc. Typically, the more serious offenses are included in Class A or Class 1 and decrease in severity by category.
What is a Felony Criminal Charge?
A felony is a serious criminal offense and the classification of that offense depends upon the length of the possible sentence a defendant may face. In the majority of states, any crime which may be punished by incarceration of a year or more is considered a felony.
Felonies include the most serious offenses, such as murder. Similar to misdemeanors, felonies are also typically categorized into classes, Class A, Class 1, and so on.
Felony charges may also be punished by criminal fines which are heftier than those in misdemeanor crimes. For example, in Alabama, a felony conviction may result in the following fine amounts:
- Class A felony: $60,000;
- Class B felony: $30,000; and
- Class C felony: $15,000.
Can a Person be Charged with Multiple Crimes?
Yes, an individual may be charged with multiple crimes. For example, certain types of charges are very closely related.
Burglary charges often include breaking and entering, which are sometimes listed as separate charges, depending on the jurisdiction. Depending on each individual case, this may affect the way in which sentencing is handed down in a case.
How Can Criminal Charges be Reduced or Dropped?
Yes, criminal charges may, in some cases, be reduced or dropped. This will, of course, depend on the individual state laws as well as the facts of each unique case.
In many cases, if a defendant has a valid defense, such as intoxication or self-defense, it may provide an opportunity for them to receive a lesser charge or a lesser sentence. In some cases, charges may even be dropped if there is a lack of evidence.
In some cases, it may also be possible to have a defendant’s charges reduced from felony charges to misdemeanor charges. This may occur if there is not sufficient evidence to prove the felony charge, such as aggravated assault but there may be sufficient evidence to prove a simple assault charge.
This often arises when an offense is a wobbler, which means that the offense can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending on the facts of the case.
What is Criminal Defense?
An individual who is accused and charged with committing a crime becomes a criminal defendant. A defendant is presumed innocent until the prosecution proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are guilty.
If, however, a defense is available which excuses or justifies the criminal behavior may prevent a defendant from being convicted or provide the opportunity to reduce the criminal charge.
What is a Criminal Defense Attorney?
Criminal defense attorneys are lawyers who defend criminal defendants during trials. These attorneys are responsible for providing a defendant with legal advice, counsel, and representation during their criminal trial.
If a criminal defendant cannot afford their own defense attorney, the state will provide them with a public defender. A criminal defense attorney may have their own law firm or they may work with other attorneys in a criminal defense law firm.
In contrast to a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney may become involved in a defendant’s case at a much earlier stage in the criminal justice process. The attorney often begins providing legal services prior to criminal charges being formally filed against the defendant.
For example, an attorney may assist and protect a suspect who is being interrogated by law enforcement or any type of legal authority. Other tasks which criminal defense attorneys routinely complete include:
- Assisting a suspect who has requested the presence of an attorney during police interrogations and other procedures;
- Assisting suspects during critical pre-trial phases;
- Engaging in plea negotiations with the prosecution in order to obtain a reduced sentence or to have the charges dropped altogether;
- Researching the laws as well as the facts which were involved in the criminal case;
- Actively defending criminal suspects in court during trial;
- Raising defenses that may be available and advantageous for the defendant, including self-defense, defense of property, and other defenses;
- Interviewing key witnesses to obtain testimony; and
- Filing for an appeal or retrial if available.
In addition, many criminal defense attorneys will continue to work with a defendant even after the conclusion of a trial. This is because a client often needs assistance with post-trial issues including probation or parole.
What is a Plea Bargain?
In criminal cases, plea bargains are agreements between a prosecutor and the defendant where the prosecution offers to drop or reduce a charge or to recommend a specific sentence to the court in exchange for a plea of guilty or no-contest from a defendant.
There are several advantages to a plea bargain, which may include:
- Having a less serious offense on an individual’s criminal record;
- Receiving a less severe sentence than the defendant receive at trial;
- Resolving the matter quickly; and
- Avoiding a trial which may potentially harm the defendant’s reputation.
A criminal charge may be reduced during a plea bargain negotiation because the prosecutor will offer a defendant the opportunity to be convicted of a lesser charge in exchange for pleading guilty. A plea bargain will reduce the criminal charge and prevent the defendant from going to trial.
It is important to be aware that, although charges may be reduced, it still means a defendant has to plead guilty to a criminal offense, even if it does carry a lighter sentence.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Criminal Charges?
It is essential to have the assistance of a criminal defense lawyer for any issues, questions, or concerns you may have regarding criminal charges. If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to consult with an attorney as soon as possible.
Your lawyer can advise you regarding the laws of your state and what defenses may be available to you as well as represent you during any hearings or trial appearances. They will also assist you with any plea bargain negotiations, if they are offered.