The Ohio criminal justice process is governed by strict procedural rules and constitutional principles meant to protect the rights of the accused. But to many defendants, the procedures and outcomes of the criminal justice system may seem complicated and arbitrary. Fortunately, a skilled and experienced Columbus criminal defense attorney can help you make sense of the criminal justice process. Below is a basic overview of the various stages of an Ohio criminal case and the ways in which a good Columbus criminal defense lawyer can help advance your interests.
The criminal justice process begins with the arrest. The police may arrest you if they obtained an arrest warrant from a judge that specifies what crime you are suspected of committing. Alternatively, the police can arrest you if they have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime. For example, if a police officer sees you assault another person, he or she won’t have to get a warrant before arresting you.
In any event, the officer making the arrest must read you the so-called Miranda rights. These rights guarantee your right to remain silent and to obtain an attorney. The police also need to inform you that anything you say can and will be used as evidence against you. For this reason, it is never a good idea to talk to the police. Remain calm and polite, but exercise your right to remain silent.
Once you’re under arrest, the police will take you to the police station for booking. They will take your mug shot, collect fingerprints, and ask for your biographical information. Your personal belongings such as your wallet and jewelry will be collected and returned to you upon your release.
Once your booking is completed, you will be placed in detention until your court hearing or until you make bail. For low-level offenses, your bail may be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But for more serious offenses, bail may be in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The judge is under no obligation to release you on bail. He or she will only release you if you demonstrate that you are not a danger to yourself or the community, and that you will not run away once released. If you and your family don’t have enough money to make bail, you can get a loan from a bail bondsman.
The United States and Ohio constitutions guarantee your right to a fair and speedy trial. However, the length of the criminal justice process (from arrest until sentencing) will vary according to the seriousness of the charges:
- Minor misdemeanors—30 days
- Misdemeanors with a maximum 60-day sentence—45 days
- Felonies—270 days
Your first court appearance is called an arraignment. During the arraignment, the judge or magistrate will explain the charges against you and ask that you enter a plea.
You have three plea options:
- Not guilty—The prosecutor’s charges are untrue, and you did not commit the crime
- Guilty—You admit to the charges
- No contest—Also known as nolo contendere, you claim that you did not commit the crime, but that you are not able to refute the charges
If you enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the judge may sentence you directly or set a sentencing hearing for a later date.
During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must demonstrate to the judge that there is enough evidence against you to establish probable cause that you committed the crime. This is different from the trial, where the prosecutor must prove his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. Think of the preliminary hearing as a screening process—the judge will only hear the case if it looks like the charges against you can be substantiated.
The preliminary hearing is an excellent opportunity to see what evidence the prosecution has, and how they intend to use it against you. This will enable you and your attorney to determine how best to refute the prosecution’s arguments. Your lawyer can also cross-examine the witnesses in order to uncover weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case.
In the unlikely event that the judge concludes there is no probable cause to believe you committed the crime, you will be released.
There are several motions—or requests to the court—that your lawyer and the prosecutor can make before the trial starts. One of the most common is a motion to suppress, which means excluding some of the prosecution’s evidence from the case. When the prosecutor’s most important evidence is excluded, he or she may not be able to prove the charges. In this case, your lawyer can file a motion requesting the court to dismiss the charges against you.
To succeed, the motion to suppress must convince the judge that the prosecutor’s evidence was obtained in violation of your constitutional rights.
- Illegal traffic stop—If the police pulled you over without having a reasonable suspicion that you were doing something illegal, any evidence obtained from the traffic stop—no matter how incriminating—must be excluded from the case.
- Unreasonable search—When the police search your home or business without a warrant, your consent, or emergency circumstances, any evidence obtained will be inadmissible. Sometimes the police conduct a home search when they only have an arrest warrant for a suspect, which is illegal.
- Inadmissible statements—When the police arrest you, they must inform you of your right to remain silent and to obtain a lawyer. Once you ask for a lawyer, they must stop questioning you. If they fail to read you your rights, any incriminating statements you make will be inadmissible at trial.
If your Columbus criminal defense lawyer is unable to suppress the prosecution’s evidence, and the prospect of winning at trial is slim, it may be in your interest to accept a plea bargain. Your lawyer can negotiate a deal with the prosecutor in which you plead guilty, and in exchange, you get a conviction for a lesser charge or only a portion of the charges. You may also receive the assurance form the prosecutor that he or she will recommend a lenient sentence.
While accepting a plea bargain means accepting the long-term effects of a criminal conviction, it has its benefits:
- A quick end to the criminal process
- The assurance of avoiding jail in some cases
- The guarantee of less fines and court costs
- Less public exposure and hassle
The criminal trial is your opportunity to prove your innocence. Your lawyer’s primary goal will be to demonstrate that the prosecution has not proved his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. This may be accomplished by reinterpreting the prosecution’s evidence, discrediting witnesses, and offering additional evidence that points to your guilt. If your trial is decided by a jury, your lawyer can also appeal to the jurors’ emotions in the hopes of obtaining a verdict of not guilty.
Although every criminal trial is different, in general, it follows the same steps:
- Opening statements—Both sides introduce the case and frame the issues that will need to be decided.
- Presentation of the evidence—This is where each side presents its case. Both sides will argue about whether some pieces of evidence or questions for the witnesses are acceptable or not. Your lawyer’s advocacy skills and knowledge of the rules of evidence and procedure will greatly influence the outcome.
- Closing arguments—After a lengthy exposition of the evidence, it’s time to refocus the jury or judge’s attention on the core strengths of your case, and the weakness of the prosecutor’s.
- Jury instructions and deliberations—The judge will instruct the jury about what evidence and issues they must consider in reaching their verdict. Then, the jury will retreat to closed room and decide your fate.
- Verdict—The jury returns to the courtroom and announces the verdict. If the jury is hung, or undecided, a new trial may be scheduled. If you’re found guilty, the judge will schedule a sentencing hearing. If you’re innocent, you will be released.
- Sentencing hearing—The judge will hear the prosecution’s recommended sentence, and listen to any arguments about why you should receive a lenient sentence. Here too, your lawyer’s advocacy skills can make a big difference in the outcome.
If you lose your trial and get sentenced to jail, there may be the possibility of filing an appeal. If you win your appeal, you may receive a retrial. But winning an appeal requires specific circumstances and extraordinary perseverance and skill on the part of your lawyer. An appeal will add greatly to the cost of your criminal trial, so you should consider carefully whether it’s worthwhile to file an appeal.
Hire An Experienced Columbus Criminal Defense Attorney
Your lawyer is not just someone who will advocate on your behalf; he or she will counsel you on what strategies will work best under your circumstances. At Luftman, Heck & Associates, we view our criminal defense practice as a partnership with our clients, through which we work together towards the desired goal. We want you to understand the proceedings so that you can be involved in decisions about the case strategy. If you want to fight back against your criminal charges, call us today at (614) 500-3836 for a free and confidential consultation of your case.