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Charging Decisions

July 23, 2018

Many people have little familiarity with how criminal charges work until they actually face them after being arrested. While the justice system is often portrayed in films and television, it never accurately shows the process of deciding which charges to raise against a suspect as well as the degree of those individual charges. Charging decisions will be an important detail of your case should you ever become arrested, so you should have some background on how those decisions are made.

What happens when you’re arrested?
You may be arrested immediately after a crime is committed or following an investigation process, depending on the circumstances of the crime itself. Typically, arrests will not occur unless there is probable cause that a crime has been committed and you are a guilty party. For example, if you can be placed at the scene of a crime through physical evidence, your arrest becomes more likely. When you are arrested, you will be read your rights and then booked, which is a process that involves being fingerprinted and photographed. You may also be asked to participate in a lineup or provide a handwriting sample. Police may take possession of any property you have on your person when you are arrested, and, in some cases, they may take possession of your car. Items may be searched, and they are inventoried so you can get them back when you are released from jail.

What happens after you’re arrested?
Being arrested is not the same as being charged with a crime. In fact, upon your arrest, the prosecutor may decide not to raise charges against you—for example, if there is insufficient evidence to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—and you would be immediately released from jail at that point.

If charges are raised against you, you will have to wait for your arraignment to hear your charges formally listed and have bail set. Because you have a right to a speedy trial, the prosecutor must decide within 72 hours which, if any, charges will be raised against you. There are some important details to note about this part of the process:

  • Charges are not set in stone. The prosecutor may alter, add, or drop the charges against you later in your trial once more evidence is obtained.
  • You will have the opportunity to get out of jail after your arrest if you are eligible for bail and able to post it. Bail is essentially a deposit that ensures that you will appear at future court dates.
  • The severity of your charges will impact your eligibility for bail as well as the amount set.
  • The prosecutor can determine whether they want to increase or decrease the severity of your charges. Misdemeanor crimes may be charged as felonies and vice versa, at the discretion of the prosecutor.

How are prosecutorial decisions made?
It’s clear that the prosecutor plays an important role in charging decisions for criminal cases, but how are these decisions informed? Though the prosecutor has the ultimate say, they typically base charges on what’s in police reports. The details in a police report are rarely disputed at this point in the trial process, so they will be treated as the most reliable resource for charging decisions. There is also political influence that determines some decisions. Prosecutors are elected officials, so they will use the political climate to determine how to try various cases. For example, a prosecutor may have a reputation as being tough on drugs, so they will pursue even the most minor drug charges, even when there is not strong evidence present for the suspect’s guilt.

How can criminal charges influence your trial decisions?
Another factor that weighs into charging decisions is the psychology of criminal charges. In other words, the prosecutor may try to influence your trial decisions by raising certain charges or adjusting the severity of a particular charge. For example, there may be a number of potentially overlapping charges listed at your arraignment, which can be scary to hear, so it’s important to take that list in context. At the stage when you are charged, there is likely still minimal evidence prepared against you, so when multiple charges are raised, they might not all be feasible to back up in a court of law. Essentially, the prosecutor may cast a wide net initially, so that isn’t an accurate representation of the kind of trouble you’re potentially in.

What is the weight of a misdemeanor charge?
When you think about the psychology of criminal charges, you should also think about the classification of the charges you’re facing. If you are only brought up with misdemeanor charges, you might feel like you are getting off light or like you have less of a serious case on your hands. This is not an accurate assumption. Misdemeanor charges are still criminal charges, and they can have a lasting impact on your life. They can also lead to jail time. In fact, the sole definition of a misdemeanor is a criminal charge that results in up to one year of jail time. If you assume that a misdemeanor is not serious and do not adequately prepare for your trial based on this assumption you could risk:

  • Several thousands of dollars in fines
  • Jail time up to one year
  • Loss of employment and difficulty securing future employment
  • Loss of housing
  • Permanent reputation challenges, including potential failed background checks

How can a criminal attorney assist in clearing or reducing your charges?
The best place to turn to better understand the charging decisions of the prosecutor and the best strategy to move forward with your case is a criminal attorney’s office. From the very moment you are arrested, the right criminal attorney can advocate for your rights and help you comprehend and handle the charges brought against you. An attorney specializing in criminal law with years of experience in your area may be particularly valuable, due to an intimate understanding of local procedures, prosecutors, and district attorneys.

For representation with the experience and insight you need to fight criminal charges raised against you, connect with Janet Altschuler, Attorney at Law. Ms. Altschuler will provide a comprehensive, aggressive defense for your case, whether you have been charged with theft, drug possession, violent crimes, or domestic violence. To reach her office in Tucson, call (520) 247-1789.