What Is a Defense Attorney?
If you are charged with a crime, you have a right to defend yourself against those charges. A criminal defense attorney can help you navigate through the criminal justice system, prepare and assert your legal defense, and ensure your rights are protected throughout the process.
Facing questioning from police, a judge, or a prosecutor on your own can be intimidating. Fortunately, criminal defense attorneys handle these interactions for a living. They interact with police, prosecutors, and judges on a regular basis, and these professional relationships can be helpful in crafting your legal defense, navigating jury selection, negotiating a plea bargain, and advocating for you at trial or during sentencing.
Hiring an attorney is a personal choice, but it is important to remember the importance of having quality legal representation when there are legal consequences like fines or time in prison on the line.
Some people opt to represent themselves if they are facing a less serious charge classified as a violation, like a traffic ticket. Other charges are more serious misdemeanors and felonies. In those cases, seeking assistance from a defense attorney can help you learn about the charges and determine the best ways to build a case that asserts your innocence or seeks a reduction of charges.
If you are just entering the criminal justice system, understanding what a criminal defense lawyer does can help you choose the best lawyer for your needs.
Criminal defense lawyers focus on protecting the rights of defendants and helping them build defenses that reduce the negative consequences of being arrested. Within the criminal defense practice, an attorney might choose to sub-specialize on specific types of crimes. For example, some defense lawyers might only handle cases involving drug charges, violent crimes, federal charges, or sex crime charges. By specializing in very specific areas, the attorney usually has the time to build strong knowledge and experience defending against these types of charges.
A major job duty for a defense attorney is similar to that of an investigator. The defense attorney has to spend time going through evidence pertaining to the charges. This can include calling in outside help to investigate the case, speaking to witnesses, finding expert witnesses, and gathering additional evidence that can improve the chances of a not guilty verdict.
There are multiple ways that a criminal case can be resolved. A defense attorney has to help a defendant decide how to proceed with their defense. This might include negotiating with the prosecution to determine if there is a suitable plea deal available. If you don't want a plea deal or if one isn't possible, your attorney then has to develop a strong defense strategy to best protect your interests.
Without a plea deal, the case will likely go to trial. In that case, the defense attorney has to present the defendant's side of the story before the court and jury. Not all lawyers have the same level of experience at trial. Attorneys have to be familiar with the laws and statutes that apply to the case and be able to make persuasive arguments to the jury advocating for a not guilty verdict. They should also know when to argue for a mistrial.
There are sometimes instances when it's necessary to appeal a conviction or sentence. Criminal defense lawyers handle this aspect of the criminal justice system. Appeals in criminal cases can be very complex, so in-depth knowledge of the appeals process is helpful in those cases.
With the potential consequences a person faces because of a criminal conviction, it is easy to understand why having legal representation is so important. Unlike laypeople, defense attorneys have formal schooling and professional resources available that help them determine suitable defense strategies. Anyone facing criminal charges should contact an attorney who has experience handling similar cases.
If you determine that hiring a criminal defense lawyer is right for you, there are a couple of options you may have available. You can opt for a public defender if you financially qualify, or you might elect to hire your own lawyer from a private practice. Both public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys are licensed lawyers, but you may prefer one over the other depending on your financial situation or personal preference.
If you are arrested, the police officer must provide you with your Miranda rights during the arrest. One of those rights is that you have the right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford one, then you may receive an attorney appointed to represent you. This attorney is a public defender.
Each state has its own criteria for determining whether a person qualifies for a public defender. If you believe you qualify for a public defender, then the police can find you a public defender to speak with at the time of your arrest and provide you with the appropriate financial questionnaire as well. If the questionnaire determines that you qualify for continued use of a public defender, then one will be appointed to you for the duration of your case.
However, it may not be completely free depending on the rules in your county or state. Some jurisdictions use a sliding scale fee to determine a percentage of attorney fees you must pay based upon your income or salary.
A number of people go straight for hiring a private criminal defense attorney, even if they may qualify for a public defender. When beginning your search, it is common to interview a few attorneys or law firms before you make your decision. Ultimately, the attorney you hire is going to represent you and your rights, so you want to make sure you are comfortable with this big decision.
Most criminal defense attorneys offer free initial consultations so they can get to know you and evaluate the case after hearing your situation. This first consultation is also an opportunity to discuss their legal strategies as well as legal fees for handling your case.
Hiring a criminal defense lawyer may be more affordable than you think. A number of criminal attorneys use payment plans, or require an upfront retainer fee with a few installments to be paid later. Others may opt for one flat fee, but this may save you money in the long run.