Criminal Defense Frequently Asked Questions
Boston Criminal Defense Questions and Answers – Criminal Defense Attorney
The criminal justice process is complex and often frightening. Brief and generalized answers to some of the more frequently asked questions can be found here. If you need additional information, call or e-mail Attorney Topazio directly regarding your specific concern.
Q: Do I ever have to consent to allow police to search my home or car?
You never are required to consent to a search by the police. Although you may sometimes be threatened by the thought of being detained by the police until a search warrant is procured, you have the absolute right not to give consent. It is almost never a good idea to give consent to search, despite what law enforcement may say to convince you otherwise.
Q: If I’m arrested, do the police have to read me my rights?
Contrary to popular belief, when a person is arrested, the police are NOT required to “read you your rights.” The reading of the “Miranda” warnings (right to remain silent, right to an attorney, etc.) and the obtaining of the suspect’s waiver of those rights is required ONLY in order for the prosecutor to later use the statements of the accused against him at trial. Miranda warnings are, moreover, only required when you are in police custody AND they want to ask you questions which are designed to elicit an incriminating response. If, for example, you voluntarily go to the police station to make a statement (ie, you’re not “in custody”, or if, while you are in custody, you blurt out statements (not in response to a policeman’s question), these statements come in regardless of a lack of Miranda warnings and waivers. Never agree to speak without first consulting a lawyer. I guarantee that no police officer would if (s)he were asked to.
Q: If I refuse to give a statement to the police concerning my potential involvement in an offense, can I be charged and taken into custody because of my refusal to cooperate?
Absolutely NOT. You cannot be arrested or charged simply because you have exercised your Fifth Amendment right not to give testimony against yourself. Many times the authorities will use this approach to scare an individual into waiving their rights and giving a statement out of fear that they will be placed in jail. The police may threaten you with this, suggesting that you will have a high bail if you don’t cooperate, or that a lack of cooperation will result in your arrest. They may also suggest that cooperation of this kind will result in leniency. Not true. Actually, the judge cannot set a higher bail because you did not cooperate with the police, and when there is justification for an arrest, one will be made. Giving statements usually just ensures that your arrest will more likely result in a conviction. Thus, the police are quite creative in their attempts to persuade suspects to give “voluntary” confessions. It makes the prosecutor’s job much easier.
Q: What Does A “Grand Jury” Do In A Drug Case?
A grand jury is a group of people called together by the prosecutor to gather information about suspected criminal activity by listening to testimony from witnesses and examining documents and other evidence. At the end of the proceeding, the grand jury decides whether there is enough evidence to put the defendant on trial for the drug charges. Grand juries are more likely to be convened in connection with more serious and complicated drug crimes, like conducting a drug-related criminal enterprise.
Q: How Does The Prosecutor Decide Which Drug Cases To Pursue?
The first thing the prosecutor looks for is a legally sound case, or one without any obvious defects that will get it thrown out of court, such as violations of the defendant’s constitutional rights or destruction of evidence crucial to the defense. The prosecutor next decides if there is enough evidence, with regard to both the quantity and the quality thereof, to make conviction probable. Finally, the prosecutor decides if prosecuting the case fits in with the office’s policy objectives, or whether a more informal disposition, like drug counseling or treatment, may be in order.
Q: Can A Defendant Plea Bargain In A Drug Case?
Plea bargaining, which involves negotiating with the prosecutor to get the charges reduced and the punishment minimized, is allowed in drug-offense cases. For example, a person charged with three separate drug charges — possession, possession for sale, and transportation of drugs — may be able to negotiate the charge down to simple possession in exchange for an agreement to plead guilty to that charge. The prosecutor agrees to plea bargains in appropriate cases because the government simply does not have adequate resources to try every case, so both sides benefit from the bargain.
Q: What Defenses Can Be Raised In Drug Cases?
The most common defense raised in drug cases is to challenge the search and seizure that resulted in the police finding the drugs. If the police violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights, the court will suppress, or throw out, the drugs as evidence. The prosecution will then have far less evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and the case could even be dismissed.
Q: Can A Defendant Be Acquitted If He Or She Was On Drugs When The Crime Was Committed?
Defendants who commit crimes under the influence of drugs sometimes argue that their mental functioning was so impaired that they should not be held accountable for their conduct. Generally, however, voluntary impairment does not excuse criminal conduct, since people know or should know that drugs affect mental functioning, and they should therefore be held legally responsible if they commit crimes as a result of their voluntary use. An exception to this rule may exist in cases involving a crime that requires “specific intent”, in which the offender must have intended the precise result that occurred but arguably could not have formed that intent in his or her drugged state.
Q: Do I Need A Lawyer To Represent Me Even If I Am Innocent?
Every criminal defendant needs an attorney. Innocent defendants are perhaps in even greater need of zealous representation throughout the criminal process to ensure that their rights are protected and that the truth prevails. Even innocent people end up in jail, so the best way to prevent that miscarriage of justice is to employ the services of a seasoned veteran of criminal defense law, particularly one with experience defending against drug charges.
Q: If I Simply Intend To Plead Guilty, Why Do I Need A Lawyer
Even if you are guilty of the drug crime with which you are charged, it is imperative that you seek the advice of experienced counsel so that you can minimize your sentence and maximize your opportunities to move ahead toward a brighter future. Criminal defense attorneys are needed to equalize the balance of power between the defendant and the prosecution and to ensure that the constitutional rights that are guaranteed to all criminal defendants, whether guilty or not, are preserved.
Q: When do the police need a warrant to make an arrest?
As long as the police have good reason (called “probable cause”) to believe that a crime has been committed and that the person they want to arrest committed the crime, they can, with just one exception, make an arrest without asking a judge for a warrant.
The exception? There are few places where the adage “a man’s home is his castle” still applies, and an arrest at home is one of them. The police must have a warrant to arrest a person at home if the arrest is for a nonserious offense — such as a simple assault — and there is no fear that the person they want to arrest will destroy evidence or cause harm to the public.
Q: If I’m arrested, do the police have to “read me my rights”?
No. However, if they start questioning you but haven’t read you your rights, they can’t use anything you say as direct evidence against you at trial. What are these rights? Popularly known as the Miranda warning (ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona), your rights consist of the familiar litany invoked by TV police immediately upon arresting a suspect:
You have the right to remain silent.
If you do say anything, what you say can be used against you in a court of law.
You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during any questioning.
If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you if you so desire.
If you choose to talk to the police officer, you have the right to stop the interview at any time. (This part of the warning is usually omitted from the screenplay.)
It doesn’t matter whether an interrogation occurs in a jail or at the scene of a crime, on a busy downtown street, or in the middle of an open field: If you are in custody (deprived of your freedom of action in any significant way), the police must give a Miranda warning if they want to question you and use your answers as direct evidence at trial. If you are not in police custody, however, no Miranda warning is required. This exception most often comes up when the police stop someone on the street for questioning about a recent crime and the person blurts out a confession before the police have an opportunity to deliver the warning.
Q: Will a judge dismiss my case if I was questioned without a Miranda warning?
No. Many people mistakenly believe that a case will be thrown out of court if the police fail to give Miranda warnings to the arrested person. What Miranda actually says is that a warning is necessary if the police interrogate a suspect and want to use any of her responses as evidence. If the police fail to give you a Miranda warning, nothing you say in response to the questioning can be used as evidence to convict you. In addition, under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule, if the police find evidence as a result of an interrogation that violates the Miranda rule, that evidence is also inadmissible at trial. For example, if you tell the police where a weapon is hidden and it turns out that you gave this information in response to improper questioning, the police will not be able to use the weapon as evidence unless the police can prove that they would have found the weapon without your statements.
Q: Are all illegal drugs treated equally when it comes to punishing drug dealers?
No, the punishment for drug crimes depends not only on the criminal conduct of the offender but also on the classification of the drug. Drugs are broken down into classes, i.e. Class A, B, C, D, and E. Possession of heroin, Class A, is more sever than possession of marijuana, Class D. State sentencing guidelines are also based on the gram weight of the substance possessed in determining trafficking offenses.
Q: Can a person be guilty of drunk driving if he only had one drink?
The crime of drunk driving is generally defined in two ways: (1) having a blood alcohol content above the limit set by law, or (2) driving under the influence of alcohol. To find a person guilty under the first definition, a jury must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeded a certain amount. In most states the legal limit is .08 (or 8 percent). Therefore, if it is proven that the person’s BAC at the time of the incident was .08 or greater, he or she can be convicted of drunk driving, regardless of how much alcohol was actually consumed.
In contrast, the second definition does not refer to any particular BAC; it focuses on the driving behavior of the person. If the person’s driving is impaired by the consumption of alcohol, he or she can be found guilty of drunk driving. Instead of presenting evidence of the BAC to a jury, the prosecution seeking a conviction under this definition generally presents testimony about the person’s driving and consumption of alcohol. A police officer will often describe the impaired driving that lead him to pull the person over and the person’s ability (or lack thereof) to perform field sobriety tests, such as walking a straight line. Evidence is also usually presented concerning the person’s consumption of alcohol. If the jury then concludes that the prosecution has met its burden of proof, it will convict the person of drunk driving. A susceptible person may exhibit impaired driving after one drink and therefore be convicted of drunk driving.
Q: What is the role of the federal government in criminal law?
Crime has long been considered the concern of state government. States are authorized to protect their citizens from criminal activity by prosecuting criminals. States are also authorized to determine what constitutes a crime statutorily (through the legislature) and through common law. The federal government, on the other hand, has limited jurisdiction and must link any crimes it prosecutes to its powers under the Constitution. The most commonly used powers to support federal criminal legislation are the commerce power, the taxing power, and the postal power. While Congress has used these powers all along to define crimes, there has been an explosion of federally created crimes in the last half of the 20th century. Most of the laws controlling white-collar crime, like the RICO Act and the Victims and Witnesses Protection Act have been passed since 1950.
In addition, Congress has become increasingly involved in the “war on drugs” with the creation of various drug statutes. Due to the severity of the penalties, often, local prosecutors prefer to have drug charges prosecuted in federal court rather than file state charges. Most federal laws have as their rationale that the particular crime addressed needs a uniform response nationwide, and due to the nature of drug crimes (particularly distribution), it is difficult to prosecute drug crimes on a state-by-state basis.
Examples of successful federal criminal legislation are the federal gun laws and federal computer laws. The federal gun laws provide uniformity and the federal computer laws make it possible to punish Internet crime.
The U.S. Constitution has always played a role in criminal law because it defines important individual rights that must be preserved even in a state prosecution involving a state crime. The Constitution guarantees a right to a trial by jury in open court, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to remain silent (on grounds of self-incrimination), the presumption of innocence, the right to be represented by a lawyer, and the right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment. States are required to pay for attorneys for indigent offenders, and federal agencies provide oversight to state prisons to ensure compliance with these constitutional requirements.
Q: Are grand jury proceedings secret?
Most courts have rules that prohibit disclosure of grand jury proceedings. The rules typically apply to the government attorneys, the grand jury members, and the court personnel. Violators of the rules can be held in contempt of court if a case against them is proven. However, proving that the leaked information came out of the grand jury proceeding and identifying exactly who made the prohibited disclosure is difficult in most cases.
Another challenge to keeping the proceedings secret arises because the prohibition against disclosure often does not apply to a person subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Witnesses are free to discuss their testimony with the media or with anyone else, unless the judge expressly orders them not to.
Persons who are the subject of a grand jury proceeding are not entitled to any notice regarding the scope of the investigation or the nature of the incidents under consideration. They are generally not allowed to have an attorney present with them in the grand jury room, but may be permitted to leave from time to time to consult with an attorney outside the grand jury room.
Q: Are there special crimes to control children’s behavior?
While there is a special court system to handle juvenile crime, there is usually not a special juvenile criminal code. Adult criminal codes are applied in the juvenile system, but the children are not generally accused of crimes. Instead, they are accused of committing delinquent acts. Sentences are designed to educate and rehabilitate children, rather than punish them. Children cannot be locked up in adult jails except for very limited periods of time. A child held in an adult jail must be out of sight and sound contact with the adult inmates.
In earlier days, special crimes that only applied to children did exist. These crimes were the so-called status offenses and punished behavior that would not be criminal if committed by an adult. Status offenses included running away from home, skipping school, disobeying parents, and breaking curfew. The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act made receipt of federal funds conditioned on eliminating status offenses, and most states have repealed any status offenses. However, these behaviors may still trigger an investigation by child protective services to determine if the child needs assistance from the court or social service agencies.
Q: What is the difference between probation and parole?
Probation is a criminal sentence; parole is one way of completing a criminal sentence of incarceration. In most jurisdictions, first-time offenders are considered for probation, particularly if their offense was nonviolent. A person placed on probation is typically given a jail or prison sentence that is suspended as long as the person abides by the terms and conditions of probation. Common terms require the person to contact a probation officer once a week and to work, go to school, or look for work. Other terms can include required attendance at alcohol treatment or narcotic-abuse programs and educational classes on such subjects as anger management or good driving. The length of probation and its terms are enumerated at the sentencing and once the person has completed the terms of probation, he or she is free of court supervision.
Parole is different than probation. Typically, an offender has been sentenced to an indeterminate or range of years in prison. After the offender has served the minimum amount of time authorized, the parole board decides if the offender is ready to be released from incarceration to finish out the sentence on parole. Parole boards consider the nature and seriousness of the crime, the views of the victim, the progress the offender made in prison, how crowded the prison is, and whether the offender has a someplace to go in the community. If parole is granted, the offender will have to abide by terms and conditions similar to those for probation for a specified period of time. If he or she completes the parole period, the criminal sentence is discharged.
Both probation and parole can be revoked if the offender commits another crime or seriously violates one of the conditions of release. The revocation proceeding requires written notice to the offender, an opportunity to explain and call witnesses, an impartial decision-maker, and a written decision stating the reasons for revocation. If parole is revoked, the parolee goes back to prison and serves the remainder of his or her sentence in jail or prison.
Q: How does a district attorney decide which criminals to charge?
A district attorney or prosecutor has the discretion to decide which crimes should be charged. In a typical case, the police investigate a crime and send a report to the prosecutor. The prosecutor then must decide whether to bring criminal charges against the subject of the investigation. First, the prosecutor analyzes the case to determine if it is legally sound. The case must not have any obvious defects that will get it thrown out of court, such as violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights or destruction of evidence crucial to the defense. Next, the prosecutor decides if there is adequate and reliable evidence of the person’s guilt. The prosecutor must determine that the amount of evidence, and the quality of evidence, makes conviction probable. If offering a plea, such as an agreement by the defendant to undergo drug treatment in return for a suspended sentence, is appropriate, the prosecutor may prefer to dispose of the case in this manner. Additional factors which may influence the prosecutor’s decision include the defendant’s culpability, which may be lacking because he or she acted out of a worthy motive or has mental defects. Finally the prosecutor must decide if he has the resources to pursue the case or if it is a low priority for that particular office.
The District Attorney of each county in the Commonwealth is an elected official and as such can be voted out of office if the public does not like the emphasis of their office. Some prosecutors, for instance, may focus most of their efforts and the office’s resources combating property crime, while others may focus on domestic abuse. If the electorate does not like the particular goals of the prosecutor, it can end the practice by failing to reelect the individual or by seeking to have them removed from office.
Q: What is the difference between rape and sexual assault?
Rape is often used as a generic term for unwanted sexual acts. However, historically its common-law definition required the sexual act to be intercourse, the rapist to be a man, and the victim to be a woman, other than his wife. Furthermore, the act had to be committed as a result of force or the threat of force. Common-law rules often required the rape to be corroborated by independent witnesses to negate the offender’s defense of consent.
Most sexual assault statutes cover intercourse as well as other sexual acts and apply to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals. Generally, husbands can be charged with sexual assault of their wives, although they may receive a lighter sentence than non-marital sexual assault. Lesser offenses, such as unwanted touching or lascivious acts may be included in the definition of sexual assault.
Q: Is driving over the speed limit a crime?
Traffic violations can be felonies, misdemeanors, or infractions. Felonies and misdemeanors are crimes, but infractions are usually not thought to be part of the criminal justice system. Driving over the speed limit is usually classified as an infraction in those systems that use the infraction category and as a minor misdemeanor in the systems that do not. If driving over the speed limit is classified as a misdemeanor, you may be charged with operating to endanger which is a crime, and is included in a person’s criminal record. Since speeding is an infraction and not a crime, it is usually punished by a fine. It is common for the fine to increase in proportion to the amount over the speed limit for which the ticket is written. Most jurisdictions tell the speeder the amount of the fine on the citation (ticket) and often give instructions for admitting responsibility and paying the fine by mail. The offender may contest the ticket at a Clerk’s hearing provided an appeal is requested in the appropriate time frame. Responsible findings for speeding tickets result in fines, surchargable points on liability insurance, and possibly loss of driving privileges.
Q: What can a lawyer do about a traffic ticket?
A moving violation can be charged as an Infraction or a Misdemeanor criminal charge. Attorney Topazio has successfully had charges dropped and reduced for clients with traffic tickets for a wide variety of driving offenses.
Q: Can only businesspersons be charged with white collar crimes?
Historically, white-collar crime focused on the status of the offenders when it identified them as professionals or businesspersons. However, the current definition of white collar crime focuses on the actions committed, and not on the vocation of the offender. White collar crime is defined as using illegal acts involving deceit to obtain property or services or to gain a business or professional advantage. Examples of cases involving crimes not traditional thought to be white collar crimes include drug dealers charged with mail fraud when they delivered controlled substances through the mail, and a printer convicted of securities fraud when he used information he obtained in the course of printing corporate documents to gain an advantage in the stock market.
The RICO Act is generally thought of as a white collar crime prevention statute. It punishes anyone who engages in a pattern of racketeering to generate income to buy a business or to conduct a business. The pattern of racketeering refers to at least two criminal acts listed in the statute that have a relationship to each other and occur within ten years of each other. Originally passed to control organized crime, RICO has been applied to drug dealers, and other non-organized crime defendants.
Q: What does it mean to “Seal” your Record?
Sealing your record prevents people from outside the criminal justice system from seeing it. Any person who is arraigned in a Massachusetts court will from that point forward have a criminal record which could be distributed to employers, schools, housing authorities and others regardless of the eventual outcome of the case. The police and the courts can still see it, but for almost all employers, public housing authorities and everyone else it is like the charge never occurred. Since criminal records that are sealed prevent disclosure during a CORI check, if asked, you can just say that you have “no record.” CORI is merely the abbreviation for “Criminal Offender Record Information,” which is a record of your Massachusetts criminal history, including any time you were arraigned in court on a criminal charge regardless of the final outcome. Unlike the 10-year and 15-year waiting periods for misdemeanors and felonies, there is no waiting period to seal the record of charges that did not result in a conviction; for example, nol prosequi cases (the prosecutor decided to dismiss them), charges that were dismissed by the court without probation, or acquittals. Notwithstanding, it will still be required to show, by way of evidentiary hearing and oral argument to the court, that there is a “compelling government interest,” or a good reason (such as the charges are preventing you from finding employment or housing), to seal your record.
Learn More: Criminal Law
Our criminal law has its roots in medieval England. Under early common law, criminal behavior was considered a breach of the King’s peace, and therefore, considered harmful to society in general, which required governmental action. Only the major felonies, such as treason, rape, larceny, battery, kidnapping, murder, and arson were prosecuted and the only sentence was death. Today, criminal law is a vast and complex body of statutes, rules, and judicial decisions that touch nearly every aspect of our lives. State, federal, and municipal criminal codes have divided the old common-law felonies into many separate crimes and now provide an array of sentencing options. In addition, new crimes have been defined addressing drugs, automobiles, businesses, organized crime, computers and other modern situations.
A crime must be clearly defined in order to pass scrutiny under the federal Constitution, which prohibits the government from taking a person’s life, liberty, or property without due process of law. A vague description of the crime or a lack of specific elements or intent needed for committing the crime leaves a person without knowledge of exactly what is prohibited. In order to be a crime, the prohibited conduct must include both a “mens rea” or intent and an “actus reus” or bad act. Accidentally hitting somebody when you draw back the baseball bat to swing at a ball is not a crime because it lacks required intent. Wishing someone would drop dead is not a crime because it lacks the bad act. Examples of crimes and topics of interest in criminal law include:
Drug violations are criminalized in both federal and state criminal justice codes, which typically list controlled substances, which are prohibited under any circumstances or may not be used except under a doctor’s care. When a person uses one of these substances in violation of a criminal statute, he or she has committed a crime.
DWI/DUI means “driving while intoxicated” or “driving while under the influence” and refers to the crime of drunk driving. This crime usually includes driving while using drugs or alcohol and operating a car or other kind of motorized vehicle, such as a motorcycle or boat. Drunk driving is defined by each state’s criminal code.
Federal jurisdiction refers to authority of a federal court to hear cases involving crimes charged under federal law. Crime has traditionally been the domain of individual states, but Congress is authorized through its powers under the commerce, postal, and taxing clauses in the Constitution to make criminal laws covering those areas. While a person can be prosecuted for the same incident under state and federal law, most often the choice of whether to bring an action in state or federal court is based upon resources available to investigate and prosecute the crime and on sentencing options.
Felonies are crimes punishable to state prison. Most felonies are also punishable by a fine, but the critical determination for considering a crime a felony is the prison sentence.
Fraud is not a separate crime, but is an important part of property crimes such as embezzlement and false pretenses. The lawbreaker must knowingly and intentionally deceive the victim in some manner for the fraud element to be satisfied.
Grand jury proceedings are a method used by prosecutors to bring criminal charges against a criminal suspect. A prosecutor will often convene a grand jury when investigating complicated criminal matters.
Juvenile crimes are typically called delinquent acts and handled in the juvenile court system. The major purpose of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate the offender, and many sentences require counseling or other family intervention. Juvenile court jurisdiction typically ends when a person turns eighteen.
Misdemeanors are crimes with a punishment to the House of Correction. Many crimes, such as theft, have degrees of seriousness with the most serious being felonies and the less serious being misdemeanors.
Parole and probation are used in the sentencing phase of the criminal-justice system. Parole refers to the condition of supervised release that occurs after an offender has spent time in prison. Probation is a sentence imposed instead of prison and is usually subject to terms and conditions designed to make the offender a law-abiding citizen.
Prosecution refers to the government’s case against the lawbreaker. A prosecutor – the lawyer presenting the government’s case – has complete discretion to decide whether to bring a charge against an alleged offender and must prove all charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
RICO refers to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act passed in 1970 as part of a larger organized crime bill. The purpose of the act is to combat the infiltration of organized crime into legitimate businesses, but also it has been used to prosecute individuals other than just those associated with organized crime.
Sex offenses include much more than the common-law crime of rape, which historically was limited to unlawful sexual intercourse by a man against a woman through the use of force or the immediate threat of force. Most states prohibit lesser invasions, such as unwanted touching, as well as prosecution of spouses for sexual assault. In addition, sex offenses include crimes that are defined based on the status of the victim, such as a child or therapy patient.
Traffic violations may be crimes or may be classified as infractions, which are generally not considered part of the criminal law. In jurisdictions where they are crimes, they are typically considered the lowest level of misdemeanor and are only punished by a fine. However, some traffic violations can rise to the level of more serious crimes, such as vehicular homicide or leaving the scene of an accident.
Victims’ rights refers to a body of emerging law that focuses on the needs and concerns of crime victims. Victims now have rights, for example, to information about the prosecution of the crime committed against them, to receive counseling and compensation, and to participate in the sentencing process.
White collar crimes refer to the group of property crimes typically committed to gain a business or professional advantage. White collar crimes include mail fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, embezzlement, tax crimes, and environmental pollution.