Criminal Law FAQs

What should I do if I’ve been arrested for a crime?

The United States Constitution provides important protections to individuals who have been arrested for a crime. An arrest occurs at the point in time when police take you into “custody,” meaning that you are no longer free to simply walk away. At that point in time, and before beginning to question you, a police officer must read you your Miranda rights, which include your right to remain silent and to refuse to answer questions, the right to speak with an attorney before speaking with the police and to have an attorney present during questioning, the right to have an attorney appointed for you if you cannot otherwise afford one, the right to stop answering questions at any time and request an attorney, and the advisement that anything you say to a police officer could be used against you in court.

These Miranda protections are designed to protect your Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination. In the circumstances of an emotional and overwhelming arrest, it can be easy for an individual to become confused and intimidated by police questioning and to make admissions or denials that are not entirely accurate. For this reason, if you have been arrested for a crime, it is important that you fully utilize your Miranda rights and seek the advice of an attorney before answering any police questions. Accordingly, upon arrest, you should clearly indicate that you intend to remain silent and will refuse to answer any questions, and that you request to speak with your attorney or to have an attorney appointed on your behalf.

Read more about the criminal process and Miranda protections.

What should I do if I suspect (but don’t know) that a friend has committed or is committing a crime?

In most situations, individuals are not legally obligated to report a crime that they observe occurring or know has occurred. However, society strongly encourages the reporting of crimes as a means to address criminal activity and prevent it from occurring again. For this reason, if you suspect that a friend has committed a crime, or is going to do so, you should report this knowledge to your local police. You can do so anonymously, although it is often more helpful to police in investigating your allegations if you identify yourself so that they can interview you and ask additional questions.

It is important to know that police can only arrest an individual if they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. This means that if you merely suspect that a crime has been committed, reporting it to police will not automatically result in the arrest or conviction of your friend. Instead, the police will do their best to investigate your concerns and would arrest your friend only when, and if, they obtain enough evidence to be reasonably certain that a crime has actually occurred.

If you are aware that your friend has committed a crime or is going to commit a crime because you yourself have been involved in the planning of that crime, you may risk being charged as an accomplice or conspirator to the crime if you do not report it. Additionally, you should avoid becoming involved in the criminal activity of your friend because, even if the crime was not your idea, you can end up facing punishment for it in some circumstances.

Read more about probable cause and arrest.

Can I represent myself in a criminal trial?

You have the right to represent yourself, or proceed “pro se,” in a criminal case. However, courts are required to determine whether a defendant fully comprehends the risks and benefits of self representation, and is acting voluntarily, before permitting him or her to waive the right to legal counsel.

Read more about the right to an attorney.

Should you hire a criminal defense lawyer or use a public defender?

Though the right to legal counsel is well established under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, not everyone can afford to hire a private defense attorney. Hiring a lawyer may be preferable to the extent that attorneys in private practice may not be as overwhelmed by the caseload that public defenders often carry, meaning that they may have more time to dedicate to your case. Regardless of your ability to pay however, you have the right to a public defender or attorney appointed by the court for the duration of most criminal cases that carry the risk of confinement (with some exceptions), from the time of arraignment through trial. The Sixth Amendment generally does not provide a right to counsel on appeal.

Read more about the right to a public defender.

What are the consequences of a criminal conviction?

The consequences of a criminal conviction can be varied and far-reaching, depending on the type of crime that has been committed. Individuals convicted of violent crimes, such as murder or rape, may face decades or even life in prison, or in some circumstances, the death penalty. People convicted of lesser crimes, such as theft, alcohol-related crimes, or drug offenses, may face the prospect of one, five, or 10 years in prison, plus the payment of thousands of dollars in fines. The exact punishment imposed will be determined by the penal code of your state or the federal code and federal sentencing guidelines. Judges typically have some latitude to lessen or increase the severity of a punishment based on extenuating circumstances.

In addition to the immediate punishment of a criminal conviction, convictions may continue to have adverse consequences for individuals long after the prison time has been served and the fine has been paid. Criminal convictions typically remain on one’s record indefinitely and give rise to a host of collateral consequences, including the requirement to disclose the conviction in employment applications, the loss of the right to vote, and restrictions on child custody and adoption, the ability to possess a firearm, and the right to participate on a jury.

Read more about the stages of a criminal case.

What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

Felonies and misdemeanors are two different categories of crimes for which an individual may be charged. They differ in their level of severity and the potential punishments that can be imposed upon a conviction. Generally, if a crime can result in imprisonment of one year or more, it is considered a felony. Conversely, if the punishment is limited to one year or less, the crime will be a misdemeanor. Whether a crime is a felony or misdemeanor is determined by the law of your state, but common types of misdemeanors include minor drug offenses and automobile offenses, such as driving while intoxicated or driving on a suspended license. Felonies include more severe crimes such as murder, assault, or burglary.

In reality, there is also a third category of crimes that are less severe than misdemeanors. These are known as petty offenses and include crimes that are punishable only by a fine. For example, traffic tickets and open container citations are typically petty offenses.

Read more about felonies and misdemeanors.

Is medical marijuana legal?

This is an area of law that is changing rapidly and varies state to state. Read a general overview of medical marijuana laws.

What happens if I don’t pay my traffic tickets?

Unpaid tickets generally accumulate fines and penalties for failure to timely pay the amount you owe. You may also be deemed ineligible to renew your license, and be required to pay a reinstatement fee once it is restored. If you fail to address your traffic ticket in any way by leaving it unpaid and also not appearing in court to contest it, a judge can issue a bench warrant for your arrest, and you can even be jailed until your case is heard.

Read more about traffic tickets.