It is well known that anyone facing criminal charges should be represented by a defense attorney. But when in the process should that attorney get involved? Before trial? Just after charges are filed? At the time of arrest?
As a general rule, you should consult with an attorney at the first sign of legal trouble. For most people, that means right after you are arrested or detained. The sad truth is that your rights can easily be violated if you don’t have an attorney by your side during each phase of the criminal justice process. When you are arrested, police are required to tell you that you have the right to an attorney. And you should exercise that right before you even agree to answer police questions.
Defendants don’t always understand their rights
Sadly, you cannot assume that police and prosecutors will always respect your rights and go by the book. A good example of this comes from Maricopa County, Arizona, which is currently being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of defendants who were prosecuted through what are known as “Early Disposition Courts.” These courts were created to help keep first-time drug offenders out of jail and guide them toward treatment instead. Four the past four years, however, prosecutors have allegedly been using them to secure convictions of defendants as quickly as possible by coercing them into pleading guilty and waiving their right to a preliminary hearing. They do this by threatening to seek a harsher sentence if the defendant chooses to exercise his right to a hearing.
Preliminary hearings essentially serve to determine if there is enough evidence to continue prosecution. A judge who is presented with flimsy or inadequate evidence might simply choose to throw out the charges due to lack of probable cause. By coercing defendants into waiving their right to a preliminary hearing, prosecutors are robbing them of a number of important opportunities, including the chance to have the charges dropped.
The article highlighted one case of a 61-year-old defendant who was being pressured into pleading guilty, even though the plea deal being offered was very harsh. He had no violent criminal history but had recently been charged with selling drugs to an undercover police officer. Despite the $20 value of the drugs and his minimal criminal history, prosecutors offered a plea deal that came with prison sentence of more than nine years. Prosecutors said that if he decided to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing, they would seek an even harsher sentence.
This tactic is often used by prosecutors all over the country, including here in Pennsylvania. It is commonly referred to as the “trial penalty.” Most prosecutors, however, will not make this threat until after affirming the charges in a preliminary hearing.
Your defense lawyer is the only person working in your interests
Once you’ve been arrested or detained, police and prosecutors are not on your side. Their job is to prove that you committed a crime. Therefore, they’re not interested in you knowing about or exercising your rights. As soon are in police custody, the wisest move you can make is to refuse to answer any questions until a defense attorney is by your side. He or she is the only person in the room who knows the law well and is tasked with protecting your rights.