Your Atlanta Criminal Case: The Basics
The rear seat of an Atlanta police cruiser is not a fun position for anyone, but nevertheless there you are. A conviction can lead to massive fines, deprivation of freedom and social stigma. Even a simple DUI carries serious financial repercussions and up to one year in jail, while some felonies can result in a life sentence. To make matters worse, Georgia's criminal justice system is just plain dense. To help you navigate the murky waters of your case, we have created a guide to prepare you for what to expect from your Atlanta criminal case.
You will not be arrested for some criminal charges. Instead, you will often be given a ticket informing you of your next court date, most likely an arraignment. You should take this court date very seriously, as "failure to appear" is a misdemeanor on its own.
If you have been arrested, you will be placed in handcuffs and driven to the nearest jail in Atlanta. Once you arrive you will be "booked;" the jail staff will search you and confiscate your personal belongings until your release, ask about your biographical information and take your fingerprints before leading you to a cell. Sooner or later, you will be given an opportunity to make a telephone call. It would be wise to contact someone you trust who could post bail or otherwise arrange your release.
Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution prevents Georgia from holding you in jail indefinitely. In fact, within 48 hours, you will attend an arraignment where the judge will formally read the charges against you and set bail.
An arraignment is almost always your first official court appearance. At an arraignment, you will first hear the formal charges against your and have an opportunity to enter a plea. It is usually a bad idea to plead guilty right away, as you have not had seen the evidence against you, had a chance to speak with an attorney, consider possible defenses, or negotiate a plea bargain.
Your arraignment could take place in any one of Atlanta's many courthouses, though the State Court of Fulton County is a likely bet for misdemeanors and the Superior Court of Fulton County will likely handle a felony case. Defense attorneys will most likely be present, but will probably not have time to speak to you about your case in any depth. After your charges are read and you have entered a plea, the judge will either release you, or set the bail amount.
On being released, many people's first thought is to run far, far away. To address this problem, judges will allow you to be released only if you deposit a sum of money, called bail, that you forfeit if you fail to appear at any future court dates. If you show up to every court appearance, the deposit will be returned to you once the matter is resolved. If you are unable to post the full bail amount, try contacting a bail bond company. Bail bond companies will loan you the full amount of the bail in exchange for 10%.
After posting bail you are probably eager to speak with an experienced defense attorney. You have a constitutional right to defense counsel in any case where you can be imprisoned for more than six months. If you lack the financial resources to hire a private attorney, the state may appoint a Public Defender to represent you.
You are entitled to a preliminary hearing in all felony or gross misdemeanor cases. A preliminary hearing is basically a mini-trial in front of a judge. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether the state has enough evidence to justify holding a jury trial. The prosecutor will usually rely on police testimony to convince the judge that there is probable cause that you committed each charged crime. It is possible that the charges will be reduced or dismissed entirely, but it is more likely that the judge will hold you to answer for trial.
You have a constitutional right to trial by jury in all misdemeanor or felony criminal cases. Going to trial is a big gamble for defendants; either you win big and are found not guilty, or you lose and are subject to punishment without the benefit of a plea bargain. It is unwise to represent yourself at trial. There is an old saying among lawyers: "he who represents himself has a fool for a client."
The first step at trial is to select a jury. Next, the attorneys will make opening statements and present evidence. Most evidence will be in the form of witness testimony, recordings, documents, maps or physical objects.
The closing statement is your attorney's last chance to convince the jury of your innocence. During testimony evidence can merely be presented, but during argument lawyers are allowed to comment on the evidence and how it relates to the law.
The judge will then read jury instructions to the jury and give them a chance to deliberate in private. All twelve members of the jury must unanimously agree to convict you before you can be found guilty. If even one juror refuses to agree the case ends in a mistrial, a major victory for the defendant.
Next Steps: A Free Criminal Case Review
Criminal cases aren't like what you see in the movies. Being arrested by itself can be scary, but going through the court system can be overwhelming. A strong legal advocate can guide you through the system and represent you in court. You can begin the process with a free case review from a Georgia criminal defense attorney.