In criminal law, it is the state that brings the case against the defendant. These cases are aptly entitled with labels such as “State of New York v. Williams” or “The People of the State of California v. Smith.” The penalties in criminal law generally focus on punishment and rehabilitation of the offender. Civil law differs in that an individual can bring a case against another person, in hopes of reimbursement for financial loss or retribution.
In criminal cases, the plaintiff (which is the state) is represented by a prosecutor, and the defendant is represented by a criminal defense attorney. Keep in mind that any person accused of a crime has a right to be represented in court. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, then the court will appoint one. Some cases go to a jury trial, some are only heard by a judge, and others are pleaded out.
Each state varies on criminal law codes and statutes. For instance, a state where the death penalty is legal will have different sentencing guidelines for capital murder than a state where the death penalty is illegal. Another example would be a discrepancy in sentencing guidelines for states who have varying marijuana laws.
A defense strategy in criminal law is like a game plan for attacking the offense. It typically starts with making sure that the defendant and the defendant’s lawyer knows the full nature of the charges. It is important that the defense:
- Address each charge;
- Knows what elements make up the charges;
- Knows what evidence is required to refute/stick the charges; and
- Knows what law controls the charges.
For example, if the defendant has been charged with trespassing and grand theft auto, then the defense must answer each charge. The elements for trespass are different from grand theft auto, so the defense needs to know what evidence can support/refute those elements.
For trespass the defendant must have known that the land belonged to someone else, but if the defense lawyer is able to show that the defendant did not know and there is no way he could have known then it can weaken the charge of trespass.
Everyone who stands accused of a crime is presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law. The defense must form a strategy to protect the defendant’s innocence by doing the following:
- Applying relevant laws to the defendant’s case;
- Coming up with defense theories as to why the defendant is innocent;
- Reviewing discovery and making sure the case has ample evidence in support of the defendant;
- Participating in plea bargaining, if necessary;
- Producing a real argument for the defendant; and
- Efficiently responding to sentencing pronouncements, such as asking for probation rather than jail time.
If the defendant will not work with their state-provided defense attorney for whatever reason, they may be able to ask the judge to appoint new counsel, or hire their own attorney. While the judge has the right to not replace the defendant’s public defender, the defendant has the right to replace their public defender with a private criminal defense lawyer at any time. It is important to keep in mind that you cannot pick your public defender and one is assigned to you at the discretion of the court.
If you have been charged with a crime, you should speak with a criminal defense attorney immediately. While the consequences of a criminal conviction can be severe, an experience lawyer will be able to advise you of your rights, put together a defense strategy, and represent your best interests in court.