How Much Trouble am I In?
If you are accused of a crime, even a seemingly minor offense like shoplifting or reckless driving, it is something to take very seriously.
Many people either don’t fully understand or unwilling to accept the potentially life-changing consequences of a criminal charge. The impact of any criminal conviction on your record can follow you for life, and affect your future in ways that can’t be predicted.
And of course, with more serious felony offenses, the stakes are even higher, and the value of a smart legal defense lawyer can be dramatic in the potential results.
The simple fact is – no matter if it was a one time mistake, a youthful indiscretion, or something you just want to put behind you as quickly as possible – there is no hiding from a criminal conviction, and it can and will pop up in a background check that anyone on the internet can find.
Criminal Records are Public Records
All criminal court records are public records as a matter of law. Years ago, that may not have meant as much. When you had to go to a local criminal courthouse, submit a request form, and wait for someone to dig through a dusty file drawer to find your record, it wasn’t always an urgent or threatening problem.
But now all data is on computer records. And in the internet age, public data records move freely. Some states, like Connecticut are now putting criminal convictions online at official state websites. But essentially any criminal docket is findable somewhere. There is a huge industry online selling cheap background checks, where you can find someone’s criminal record for under $15.
Background checks are routinely by employers before hiring, or even interviewing, landlords checking out potential tenants, and community groups looking to scan records for potential cub scout leaders, soccer coaches, or anything else.
You can hope that a shoplifting conviction won’t have any meaning to your life ten years from now. Any maybe it won’t. If you’ve made a dumb mistake as a young person, no doubt you will move on, mature, and learn.
But by accepting a guilty plea now, without fully evaluating your chances to beat a charge before it can hurt you, you are taking a risk.
If, ten years from now, a job offer comes down to an employer choosing between you, and someone with a spotless background check, who do you think they will choose?
Defending a Criminal Charge Before it Becomes a Conviction
The best time to deal with these consequences is before you are convicted! The things that a criminal defense lawyer can do for you include:
Fight the Case at Trial
This is an obvious option, and it has a number of advantages. Your attorney can start with filing motions for discovery to fully examine how strong the case is against you. There may be legal justifications to file a motion to dismiss on any number of possible legal grounds – illegal search and seizure, illegal motor vehicle stop, and more.
If you take the case all the way to trial in front of a judge (bench trial) or jury trial, you can be found not guilty and put this behind you forever.
In many cases, even if you lose at trial, you face penalties that are no more serious than if you had simply plead guilty in the first place. So the only think you are risking is a few thousand dollars in extra legal fees. If you have a decent chance to beat the case, this can be a smart investment in your future.
Of course, this isn’t always true. Maybe your case isn’t that strong, or maybe there is a significant risk of much more severe penalties if you lose at trial. These are options that you’ll need to fully explore with an a defense lawyer experienced in your type of case. You will have to make a judgment as to the pros and cons of taking a case to trial case vs. pleading. But it is absolutely worth consideration in many situations.
Getting your charges reduced to non-criminal offenses.
This can be an option, with many different types of charges, including reckless driving, or other criminal traffic defenses. Getting a criminal offense dropped down to a civil traffic citation is a big win.
Other offenses like shoplifting or theft charges can sometimes be reduced or dropped if you agree to restitution, i.e. paying back whatever you took.
Some states and court systems allow for alternative dispositions, that can play out in a number of ways. If you are eligible for a special drug court or DUI court, for example, you may have the option to get your charges dropped or dismissed after 6 months or a year of drug and alcohol treatment, and strict probation and completion of the program.
Other dispositions may be available for anger management classes, or other alternative sentencing options that can get you out from under the threat of a permanent criminal record.
The bottom line is that a full criminal case evaluation by an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you analyze all of the possibilities and implications of a criminal conviction. And most importantly, you can evaluate all possible criminal defense options available to you, and weight the costs, consequences and benefits of any legal defense strategy.
So don’t just assume you need to plead guilty (even if you admit you are guilty) without considering all the legal alternatives available to you.