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Your El Paso Criminal Case: The Basics

Crime never pays. Especially, in Texas. And, especially, in El Paso. "The Sun City" was ranked lowest in overall crime in the U.S. for 2012. However, if you or someone you know is one of the unlucky few that's been arrested and charged with a crime in El Paso County, FindLaw has information that may be able to help.

Since arrests occur in so many different situations, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen. This article provides general information about what to expect in many types of criminal cases in El Paso.

Getting Arrested

If you've been arrested, either at the scene or through an arrest warrant, you've likely spoke to the men and women in blue from the El Paso Police Department, the El Paso County Sheriff, or the Texas Highway Patrol.

Unlike the miscreant police officers you may have seen on TV, cops must follow some basic rules during your arrest. If they neglect to follow these procedures, it could jeopardize the prosecutor's case against you.

Miranda Warnings and Jail

You should be read your Miranda rights: "You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court…" Then, the police have two options: take you to jail for booking or release you with a promise to appear at a later date.

If you are taken to jail in El Paso, plan to spend some quality time in the Downtown Jail or the Jail Annex. If you are the victim of a crime and want to know the status of an inmate, Texas has a system known as VINE. It's a statewide service through which victims of crime can use the telephone or Internet to search for information regarding the custody status of their offender and to register to receive telephone and e-mail notification when the offender's custody status changes. The VINE toll-free number is 877-894-8463.

Posting Bail

If you want to go home, you'll either be released on your own recognizance or have to post bail. Bail is money that you have to pay to the courts in order to be released from jail pending trial. You usually have to put up 10% of the total amount of bail the judge sets in your case in order to get out.

Getting Arraigned

Your first appearance before a judge is at the arraignment. The judge will advise you of your criminal charges, ask whether you have an attorney or want a court-appointed lawyer, inquire how you will plead to the charges (most people plead "not guilty" at this stage), determine whether to modify the initial amount of bail and then set a schedule for future court dates.

What happens next depends on whether you are dealing with a misdemeanor or a felony.

Misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are divided into three separate classes, A to C, with A being the most severe. They're less serious than felonies, but remember, a conviction or guilty plea can have consequences on your career and your freedom. If you are a non-citizen, a misdemeanor can also impact your immigration status.

Common El Paso misdemeanors include driving while intoxicated, possession of illegal drugs, and certain types of theft, just to name a few.

The maximum punishment you'll receive if convicted is up to one year in jail and a fine of $4000. Some crimes carry additional penalties such mandatory counseling or substance abuse classes.

Your case will be set for a plea bargaining hearing, where the district attorney and your attorney talk about the case with the judge and try to reach a resolution. If they can't, you will go to trial.

At trial, a jury will decide if you're guilty or innocent. If the jury finds you "not guilty," the case ends and you may go free. If the jury can't decide, it's called a "hung jury," and the district attorney may be able to retry the case at a later time. If you're convicted, the judge will impose your sentence.

Felony Cases

Felonies are very serious cases with very serious consequences including prison time and major repercussions for the rest of your life.

El Paso felonies range from reckless injury to a child, kidnapping, robbery, or murder. In Texas there are five classes of felonies with penalties ranging from 180 days in prison to the death penalty. Felony cases are investigated by grand juries as a precursor to prosecution.

Grand Jury

The grand jury is a screening panel of persons selected from the community to serve a six-month term reviewing cases to determine if there's "probable cause" that someone committed the crime they are accused of. If the grand jury finds probable cause, they will issue a "true bill" of indictment. The case then gets assigned to a trial court for disposition. If the grand jury issues a "no bill", the case ends. The prosecutor has the right to present a case to another grand jury if one entered a "no bill," however this is rare, and is usually only invoked in cases which have gathered media attention.

Plea Bargaining and Pre-trial Hearings

The next stage in a felony is the pretrial hearing. The district attorney and defense attorney may meet in the judge's chambers to discuss your case and sometimes enter a plea bargain. Pretrial gives your attorney an opportunity to gather information from the prosecution, explore that evidence, and possibly resolve your case without a trial. It is also an opportunity to make important motions challenging the prosecution's case.

Trial

If you go to trial, the district attorney must prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

You have the right to a jury trial where twelve randomly selected members of the community decide your guilt or innocence. Both the prosecutor and defense will present evidence. Remember, you can't be compelled to testify. If the jury finds you guilty, the judge will sentence you.

Criminal cases can have a serious, lasting impact on your life. You have options and rights. It may be a good idea if you are charged with an offense, especially a serious one, to consider consulting with a local criminal attorney.

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