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Rhode Island Criminal Law: An Overview

Being charged with a crime can be especially stressful if you’re unaware of your rights and the penalties you may face in the criminal justice system. While you can help yourself by hiring a criminal defense attorney to represent you in the case, you can help your case even more if you learn about Rhode Island’s criminal laws.

Crime Classification: Misdemeanor or Felony?

Every state has its own system of classifying crimes which also identifies the statutory punishments for each classification. Rhode Island has three main criminal offense classifications.

Almost every offense carries its own statutory penalties. The least serious noncriminal offenses are classified as violations. Penalties for violations are limited to a fine of up to $500.

Criminal offenses may be sentenced to fines and/or imprisonment. The penalty ranges for criminal offenses as follows:

  • Petty misdemeanors: Up to six months of imprisonment and up to $500 in fines
  • Misdemeanors: Up to one year of imprisonment and up to $1,000 in fines
  • Felonies: More than one year of imprisonment and more than $1,000 in fines

For many offenses, Rhode Island doesn’t break up its felonies and misdemeanors into different classes or degrees like many states do. Some violent crimes, such as murder and sex crimes, are classified by degree. In these instances, the first degree is the most serious or severe, while the third is the least serious or severe. Each degree is associated with a range of penalties.

What About A Criminal Record Expungement?

In the state of Rhode Island, misdemeanors are subject to search by the general public in the same database as more serious crimes. Potential employers and landlords may use the database as a tool, just as concerned community members may also do. In this way, any criminal charges on your record may affect future employment and housing opportunities.

Expungement is the sealing of a criminal record to eliminate public access to that record. Rhode Island does allow for expungement of criminal records under certain circumstances. First-time offenders who committed non-violent crimes may be successful in pursuing a criminal expungement. Discussing your options with an attorney can help you understand your likelihood of success in expunging your criminal record.

Rhode Island Marijuana Laws

Rhode Island marijuana laws allow for both medicinal and recreational use. Recreational use of marijuana has been decriminalized, but is not considered legal. This can be confusing to understand. Basically, if you are found to have possession of less than one ounce of weed for personal use, any penalties you face are civil and not criminal in nature. The penalties include a potential $150 fine but do not include a criminal record.

It is illegal to smoke weed in public or in any place in Rhode Island where it’s illegal to smoke tobacco products. And anyone caught with more than one ounce for personal use – or charged with selling it – may face drug crime charges of a more serious nature, up to and including felony charges. Legal issues also can arise if you are charged with driving under the influence of marijuana, even if you have qualified for medicinal use.

DUI Laws in Rhode Island

Rhode Island classifies drunk driving as both driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) among its criminal offenses. Each classification also carries its own associated penalties depending on blood alcohol content (BAC) level:

  • Tier 1: BAC level of .08 to .10%
  • Tier 2: BAC level of .10 to .15%
  • Tier 3: BAC level of .15% or higher

Penalties for DWI/DUI charges will depend on the number of offenses, age, BAC level, and whether a personal injury or accident led to the charge. Penalties start with fines of up to $300, jail time of up to one year, license suspension of up to 180 days, and more.

Third (or more) offenses are considered felonies. This applies to any offense within a five-year period of the previous conviction, as long as two or more DUI convictions are already on the driver’s record. Penalties include up to five years in jail, fines of up to $5,000 plus court costs, mandatory alcohol treatment, license suspension for up to three years, and more.

Rhode Island has a zero-tolerance policy for underage drunk drivers.

Do You Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

Considering that the state has a separate criminal court dedicated to misdemeanors, it’s probably a good idea to seek legal advice and obtain legal representation when facing any criminal charge. Here are a few things to look for while searching for a potential criminal defense lawyer:

  • Does the law firm offer a free consultation?
  • Is the location of the law office convenient for you?
  • What are the firm’s practice areas? Do they include the practice area that applies to your particular criminal case?
  • How many years of experience does the legal team have?
  • Do they regularly handle criminal cases in superior court? In district court? In federal court?

During a consultation you can ask whether the attorney is used to handling mainly lower level crimes, such as DUI/DWI, domestic violence or disorderly conduct or whether they are more commonly representing clients in white collar crimes or federal cases. Learning more about their experience can help you decide who is in the best position to represent you.

Educate Yourself

Your lawyer’s job is to build the best defense strategy they can for your case from arraignment through a potential trial, but not enough can be said for learning all you can about the criminal justice system. As an educated client, you may be able to help your case even more.

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