What Is Criminal Defense Law?
Criminal defense law is a subset of criminal law, a part of the legal system that focuses on crimes and the punishment of people and/or companies who may have committed them.
Criminal defense lawyers and law firms focus on shielding those facing criminal lawsuits, which are proceedings filed by the state that claim the people/companies in question broke the law.
Common Types of Criminal Charges
There are many types of criminal charges a person or company might face.
Common criminal charges include:
- Aggravated assault
- Aiding and abetting
- Credit/debit card fraud
- Domestic violence
- Drug possession
- Drug trafficking and distribution
- Drunk driving (DUI)
- Hate crimes
- Identity theft
- Indecent exposure
- Insurance fraud
- Manslaughter (involuntary and voluntary)
- Nursing home abuse
- Sexual assault and other sex crimes
- Tax evasion/fraud
- White collar crimes
How Much Does a Criminal Lawyer Cost?
The cost of hiring a criminal defense lawyer can vary greatly, but many charge hundreds of dollars per hour.
The exact hourly rate will depend on the lawyer’s years of experience, the jurisdiction, the type of criminal charge(s) (i.e. felony or misdemeanor), and the complexity of the case.
Some lawyers may not charge hourly rates. Instead, they may request a lump sum for the services to be provided.
Further, it may be possible to get help from a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer, also known as a public defender, for free if you cannot afford one.
“The Constitution guarantees free legal help for people who are charged with a crime which might lead to imprisonment and who cannot afford a lawyer. If you find yourself in this situation, request the appointment of a public defender when you first appear in court.”
— American Bar Association
Be sure to talk to any criminal defense attorney about your payment options.
Who Needs a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
Anyone facing criminal charges should seek help from an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.
Many criminal charges carry heavy penalties, including large fines and/or lengthy prison sentences. Criminal convictions can also tarnish your reputation and limit your future employment or housing options.
Skilled criminal defense lawyers can defend your rights to disprove the charges against you and/or reduce the severity of your sentence.
The Process of Criminal Defense Lawsuits
If you have been charged with a criminal offense, knowing how the criminal defense process works can be very helpful.
Here’s a breakdown of how it works.
1. Alleged Charges and Arrest of Defendant
First, law enforcement (such as police officers) will gather evidence about the alleged crime. They will interview any witnesses and victims and analyze the crime scene.
If there is enough evidence (probable cause) suggesting that a specific person was responsible for an alleged crime, the person of interest may be charged and arrested. The person charged with the alleged crime is called the defendant.
2. Bail Is Negotiated and Defendant Gets Released
Once the charges are filed, the bail will be set along with other conditions for the defendant’s release. The defendant can pay cash bail or pursue a bail bond.
Through a bail bond, the defendant must pay a specific amount of money and promise to return to court for the scheduled court date. After appearing in court as stated in the bail agreement, they will get most (if not all) the money back if they paid cash bail but not if they posted bail through a bail bond.
It is vital to secure a bond as soon as you are taken into custody. If you can’t pay your bond, you may have to remain in jail or prison until the beginning of your trial, which can take weeks or months.
An experienced criminal lawyer can help you get out of jail or lower your bond by mentioning factors such as your non-threatening status, lack of criminal history, and lack of flight risk.
3. Criminal Defense Attorney Prepares Defense
Once you are out of prison or jail, your attorney will prepare your criminal defense.
They will do this based on:
- Documentation: Your lawyer will thoroughly analyze any documents related to your case — such as medical, police, and financial records — for violations of your legal rights, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies.
- Evidence: Your attorney will assess all of the evidence presented by the prosecution for reliability, admissibility, and relevance. They may present alternatives, question the authenticity of evidence, and challenge the chain of custody (the manner and order in which electronic or physical evidence is handled).
- The severity of the charge(s): The seriousness of your charges will have a large impact on the defense strategy. If you are facing minor offenses, your lawyer may focus on seeking alternative resolutions or a plea deal. For more severe charges, they may develop a thorough defense strategy to challenge the prosecution’s case.
- Witnesses: Your lawyer will identify potential witnesses, interview them, and evaluate their relevance and credibility. They may also call witnesses who can challenge the prosecution’s witnesses and evidence or provide expert testimony to support your defense.
- Your criminal history or lack of history: Your criminal record also plays a role in defense preparation. If you have a clean record, your attorney may argue that the charges are out of character. However, if you have a history of similar offenses, your attorney may use different strategies.
Be as honest as possible when working with your criminal defense attorney. The attorney-client relationship ensures that all communications between you and your defense lawyer are private and legally protected.
4. Defense Negotiates a Plea Bargain
After preparing the defense, your attorney will propose a plea bargain.
Plea bargains are agreements between prosecutors and defendants. The defendants agree to plead guilty to all or some of the charges. In return, their punishments are reduced. Or, the defendants may plead guilty to a lesser charge.
According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, 90% to 95% of cases end in plea bargaining, not jury trials.
Common types of plea bargains are:
- Charge bargaining is when you plead to a crime that is less serious than the original charge. For example, if the prosecution charges you with burglary, you can plead guilty to trespassing.
- Count bargaining is a type of charge bargaining where you plead to only one or more of the original charges. The prosecution will then drop the others.
- Fact bargaining is when you strike an agreement with a prosecutor over which version of the facts will be used during a court case. This can have a positive or negative effect on your court sentence, depending on the facts used.
5. Criminal Case Goes to Trial
If you decide to proceed to trial, the judge will schedule a trial date, during which the prosecutor must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
This is a very high standard — it requires the prosecution to convince the jury that there is no other reasonable explanation that can be concluded from the evidence presented at trial.
Your lawyer will try to cast doubt on the prosecutor’s case by showing that some other reasonable explanation exists. They can do this by challenging witness credibility, exposing procedural errors during the investigation or access process, or establishing that you were falsely accused.
Common Types of Criminal Defenses
Attorneys may use the following legal defense strategies to defend your case.
Filing a Motion to Dismiss the Case
Your attorney may file a legal “motion” (request) to dismiss a case. If granted by a judge, this would mean the case would not go forward.
Grounds for Motion to Dismiss
There are many grounds for filing a motion to dismiss.
- Insufficient evidence
- Illegal stop or search by law enforcement
- Loss or tainting of evidence required to prove guilt
Demonstrating Defendant’s Innocence
A jury decides whether you are innocent in most criminal trials. As such, your lawyer will attempt to show why the jury should find you not guilty.
They may do this by:
- Challenging the prosecution’s evidence by scrutinizing the evidence collection methods and chain of custody
- Highlighting the lack of a clear motive or opportunity for you to commit the supposed crime
- Presenting expert witnesses to provide professional opinions and knowledge that support your innocence
Fighting Exclusion of Evidence
Your attorney may also submit a motion to exclude or suppress evidence. This is usually done during the pre-trial phase.
It asks the court to exclude or ignore one or more pieces of evidence for certain legal reasons. If the court grants this motion, the prosecutor may find it impossible to prove all of the elements of the alleged crime.
Here are 3 reasons why the court may grant this motion:
- Evidence was illegally obtained: The court must exclude evidence that was obtained through illegal search and seizure, which goes against the Fourth Amendment.
- Illegally obtained statements: If law enforcement did not read your Miranda Rights (which begin with “Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law”), your responses may be excluded at trial.
- Violation of the chain of custody: Evidence must be handled according to strict protocols. Any piece of evidence that may have been tampered with or tainted will not be allowed at trial.
Common Criminal Trial Defense Strategies
Lawyers may use these criminal trial defense strategies to convince the jury that there is reasonable doubt that you committed a crime.
- Crime did not occur: Your lawyer may argue that the crime did not happen due to consent, entrapment, or withdrawal or abandonment of criminal activities.
- Defendant did not understand criminal actions: Elements of the crime usually require you to understand what you’re doing. If you didn’t understand what you were doing due to intoxication, insanity, or lack of awareness of the law, the charge may be dismissed or reduced.
- Defendant’s actions were justified: A justification defense includes arguments like actions taken under necessity or duress and self-defense. For instance, your actions may be justified if someone was attacking you and you injured or killed them to defend yourself.
Factors in Criminal Defense Strategies
A range of factors affect attorneys’ criminal defense strategies, including the defendant’s explanation, witness testimony, and provable facts.
Your account of the events leading to the charges will be the foundation of the lawyer’s criminal defense strategy. Accordingly, your lawyer will work closely with you to understand your side of the story and create a strong narrative to present in court.
Your explanation will also help your lawyer build a defense strategy, such as asserting self-defense, presenting an alibi, or challenging the credibility of witnesses.
Your attorney will assess witnesses for biases, inconsistencies, and motives that could impact their reliability and the prosecution’s case. They may also find additional witnesses to challenge the prosecution’s theories and propose alternative perspectives.
Your defense attorney will identify and highlight provable facts that support your innocence and minimize your charges. This may include surveillance footage, alibis, or other evidence contradicting the prosecution’s evidence.
Your defense lawyer will analyze physical evidence presented by the prosecution, such as pieces of clothing, car parts, and firearms. Your lawyer may want to look for problems in the chain of custody to cast doubt on the physical evidence presented.
Police reports provide valuable information about the evidence against you, including physical evidence and witness statements. Your defense attorney may try to find inconsistencies in these reports that can weaken the prosecution’s claims. They can also use police reports to identify potential Fourth Amendment violations.
Expert and Third-Party Reports
Third-party reports and expert opinions can provide specialized and objective analysis, knowledge, and opinions that can support your defense. For example, your criminal defense lawyers may call in experts to interpret and evaluate the integrity of the evidence.
The prosecutor’s approach to questioning witnesses, presenting evidence, and constructing arguments can significantly affect your attorney’s criminal defense strategies. It may require your attorney to counter the prosecutor’s claims or adjust their negotiation and trial approaches.
Judge’s History and Case Precedent
A judge’s history and case precedent can affect defense strategies in various ways. Your defense attorney can tailor arguments to align with the judge’s tendencies, inclinations, and prior rulings.
Benefits of Working With a Criminal Defense Lawyer
Working with a criminal defense attorney provides many benefits if you’re charged with a crime.
3 benefits include:
- Advising you on which plea or route to take: A trusted trial lawyer will provide expert advice on the benefits and risks of different plea options.
- Identifying and preparing the best defense for your case: An experienced criminal defense lawyer will thoroughly analyze your case, review the evidence, and create the most effective legal strategy.
- Never backing down from a prosecutor: A skilled criminal defense attorney is a fighter — they will vigorously advocate for your rights, refusing to back down in the face of a prosecutor’s tactics or pressure. They’ll also look for gaps in the prosecutor’s case.
Finding Criminal Defense Lawyers
Facing a criminal charge can be daunting for defendants and their family members.
Fortunately, a top criminal defense lawyer can build the strongest case possible to refute these charges. With their help, it may be possible to have the charges dropped or lessened, minimizing the criminal case’s impact on your life.
Contact a criminal defense law firm near you to find out how they can help after a criminal charge has been filed.
FAQs About Criminal Defense
What is the most common type of criminal defense?
Common types of criminal defenses include:
- Entrapment: This claims that the defendant was forced or induced by law enforcement into committing a crime that they would not have committed otherwise.
- Insanity: This is used when the defendant’s mental state is in question. It argues that the defendant lacked the clarity of mind or mental capacity to understand the consequences of their actions.
- Self-defense: This defense argues that the person accused of a crime had to take action to protect themselves from immediate threat or harm.
What is the strongest type of defense against a criminal charge?
The strongest type of defense against a criminal charge depends on the specific circumstances of a defendant’s case, but it often involves challenging the burden of proof.
Criminal cases must show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If your criminal defense attorneys can show that there’s reason to doubt you committed the crime(s) in question, your sentence could be reduced or you could be found innocent.
Other factors, including the jurisdiction, applicable laws, available evidence, and the type of charge, all affect the defense strategies used to help prove your case.
How much do criminal defense attorneys cost?
Criminal defense attorneys typically charge several hundred dollars per hour. Generally speaking, experienced and top-rated attorneys charge higher fees, while less experienced and well-known lawyers charge lower fees.
If you can’t afford a private criminal defense lawyer, it may be possible to receive a public defender for free.
Can you present your own criminal defense?
Yes, it’s possible to represent yourself when facing criminal charges. However, it’s almost always in your best interest to get legal representation from a criminal defense lawyer.
An experienced criminal defense lawyer has the expertise to build a strong case on your behalf and will work tirelessly to get the charges dropped or reduced.