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The Complete Beginner's Guide to Criminal Defense


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Criminal defense is a controversial topic in the U.S. Many people wonder how a defense attorney could defend the people they do. But behind the scenes, how does criminal defense really work? Who needs a criminal defense attorney, and why is this constitutional right to defense so vital? If you have questions, get them answered here. Understand every U.S. citizen's right to defense, the steps involved once charged have been made, and why criminal defense attorneys aren't just sticking up for big, bad guilty people.

This presentation was created by Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Carolyn Agin Schmidt in partnership with Happy Dog Web Productions. If you live in Minnesota and would like to discuss how a criminal defense attorney could help you, get started with a complimentary consultation by visiting

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The Complete Beginner's Guide to Criminal Defense

  1. 1. The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Criminal Defense
  2. 2. It all starts with a criminal charge
  3. 3. and a person accused of a charge.
  4. 4. What happens next?
  5. 5. In order to be prosecuted in court, the criminal charges against a person must be based on a reasonable cause to believe that a person could have committed the crime they are accused of. This is called “probable cause.”
  6. 6. However, in trial, the level at which prosecutors have to prove that a person has committed a crime is higher. Prosecutors have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a person has committed the crime.
  7. 7. The Founders of the United States believed in a just, fair society.
  8. 8. Unlike many countries around the world, the Founding Fathers saw it necessary to protect people from punishment or imprisonment without proof. That’s why the standard to establish legal guilt is so high… beyond a reasonable doubt.
  9. 9. So when a person’s charged with a crime, what happens next?
  10. 10. The accused person will have to appear in court for their first court appearance, called an “arraignment” in misdemeanor cases and a “first appearance” in gross misdemeanor and felony cases.
  11. 11. At the arraignment/first appearance After the charges and rights are explained to the defendant, bail and conditions of release will be determined, and another court appearance will be scheduled. At an arraignment the defendant must enter a plea, usually “not guilty.” At a first appearance there is no plea required. That will happen later in the case, usually the omnibus hearing or pre-trial.
  12. 12. A preliminary or omnibus hearing occurs before trial. Evidence is presented to determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe the defendant committed the crime, and evidentiary challenges are heard.
  13. 13. The defendant (the accused person) has three options.
  14. 14. 1. SELF-REPRESENTATION. Continue with the trial and represent yourself. 2. PUBLIC DEFENSE LAWYER. Fill out paperwork for a public defender. 3. PRIVATE DEFENSE LAWYER. Hire a criminal defense attorney and mount a defense.
  15. 15. 1. SELF-REPRESENTATION It is my professional opinion that one should avoid self- representation at all times, especially the most serious of charges. Often times, people make the mistake of thinking they can handle a case themselves and pay a lot more for their mistakes than if they had hired a lawyer. You should at least consult with a lawyer before deciding to represent yourself. Most lawyers will give you a free consultation.
  16. 16. 2. PUBLIC DEFENSE LAWYER For anyone who cannot afford a private attorney you should apply for a public defender. Public defense is a legal right if you qualify for a public defender. However, public defenders can often only devote limited time to each case because they have so many cases.
  17. 17. 3. PRIVATE DEFENSE LAWYER Private defense lawyers typically have smaller caseloads, which usually means they have more time and resources to devote their full attention to a case. While there are excellent and poor lawyers in both the public and private realms, clients will likely experience more personal attention from a private lawyer.
  18. 18. What are a person’s rights?
  19. 19. In the U.S. legal system, if you’ve been accused of a crime, you are entitled to: Due process The Fifth and 14th Amendments to the constitution state that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Legal counsel The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution says “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
  20. 20. The definition of criminal defense Criminal defense involves building a defense in favor of a person who has been accused of a crime – the “defendant.” In criminal defense, a lawyer will advocate for their client, creating the best possible defense in their favor in order to reach the best possible outcome for the case.
  21. 21. What are the goals of criminal defense? Even in cases where guilt seems very apparent, the full burden of proof is still on the government. Criminal defense forces the prosecution to prove the charges, negotiates in favor of the defendant, and leverages the playing field for the defendant so that the outcome of the case is less harsh.
  22. 22. How can criminal lawyers defend someone they think is guilty?
  23. 23. A defense attorney’s job is notto cover up or hide a person’s perceived wrongdoing. Many attorneys do not even ask if their client committed the crime. Instead, a defense attorney’s job is to provide a strong defense that forces the prosecution to provide prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A person is “innocent until proven guilty,” and a criminal defense lawyer mounts a defense that challenges the case against their client.
  24. 24. Criminal defense focuses on the prosecution’s case against a client. Often, charges seem too strong, or the trial may not provide substantial evidence to match the charges. A criminal defense lawyer will fight for charges that match the evidence, and for a just punishment, if any punishment is warranted. Sometimes, they’ll fight for their clients’ innocence, and for an acquittal.
  25. 25. Typical defenses in criminal cases
  26. 26. They didn’t do it because… Reasonable doubt Alibi Innocence
  27. 27. They did it, but… Intoxication Self-defense Entrapment Mistake of law or mistake of fact Necessity
  28. 28. What criminal defense lawyers commonly seek for their clients • Reduced/waived bail • Prevented conviction • Dismissed charges • Acquittal • A just, fair punishment, often less harsh than what the prosecution seeks
  29. 29. The defendant has options to resolve their case: Plead guilty to the charges or plea bargain to prevent the case from going to trial, which may result in reduced charges or lesser sentences. Plead not guilty and have a trial by a jury or judge.
  30. 30. How can hiring a criminal defense lawyer help you?
  31. 31. A criminal defense lawyer  Knows the local court, laws, and procedures – and how to build the most effective case when dealing with a certain judge or prosecutor.  Can advise a client on whether or not to plead guilty, based on the facts of your case, and help determine a possible plea bargain.  Is familiar with all types of defenses, and will find the most effective defense for your case.  Can coach a client on what to divulge in court.  Will provide support and guidance through an often emotional, trying time.  Advocates for a client to the best of their ability.
  32. 32. Ultimately, a criminal defense attorney wants to prevent unjust convictions and/or punishments…
  33. 33. …and preserve their client’s rights.
  34. 34. Who hires criminal defense attorneys?
  35. 35. Everyday people charged with crimes
  36. 36. Criminal defense lawyersdeal withall sortsof charges. General criminal charges DUI/DWI Domestic assault Theft and fraud White collar crime Sex crimes Traffic violations
  37. 37. With their legal expertise, lawyers can turn the tide for a person who’s facing charges, resulting in a positive outcome, protecting a career, and ensuring that they can continue to live their life.
  38. 38. Thank you for reading If you’re in the Minneapolis or Duluth area and need an experienced criminal defense lawyer, The Law Office of Carolyn Agin Schmidt offers free criminal defense consultations for Minnesota clients dealing with a wide variety of criminal charges. To learn more, please visit