The modern criminal justice system began taking shape in the mid-1800s. The country was growing rapidly, and criminal courts lacked funding. 1881 Californian Albert McKenzie may have entered the nation’s first voluntary guilty plea.1 Prosecutors alleged that he embezzled $52.50 from his sewing machine-maker employer. In exchange for his plea to misdemeanor embezzlement, prosecutors dropped the felony charge.
Today, for better or worse, plea bargaining dominates the criminal justice process in New York. More on that below.
The country is even bigger now. Rochester was a one-horse town in 1881. Today, it’s a large metropolis. So, prosecutors are more willing than ever to make favorable deals. However, they don’t give out these deals like toys at Christmas. Instead, a Rochester criminal defense lawyer must thoroughly evaluate a case, formulate a defense, and attack the state’s evidence.
The criminal justice process starts with an arrest. Informal investigations lead to most arrests, like DUI, assault, and drug possession. A single officer, or perhaps two or three, either sees an offense in progress or responds to a disturbance call and, following a brief investigation, makes an arrest.
Sometimes, judges issue arrest warrants, often after a more extensive investigation, like a murder investigation. Arrest warrants have no expiration date. Once a judge issues a warrant, it’s valid until a police officer serves it.
In both situations, defendants usually go to jail. Immediate jail release jumpstarts a criminal defense and preserves the defendant’s mental health. Rather than applying the presumption of innocence, jurors assume incarcerated defendants did something wrong. In terms of mental health, incarceration causes stress hormone buildup. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones causes brain injuries.2
Three jail release options are available in Monroe County: own recognizance release, cash bail, and a bail bond.
OR release is “go forth and sin no more” release. Defendants with no criminal history and face nonviolent misdemeanor charges often walk free if they agree to stay out of trouble, appear in court, and meet other program requirements. Cash bail is like a rental property security deposit. Defendants who deposit the entire amount in cash and fulfill all release conditions get most of that money back. A bail bond is an insurance policy. The bonding company assumes financial risk if the defendant skips bail.
Sometimes, initial jail release is unavailable or unaffordable. A Rochester criminal defense lawyer requests a bail reduction hearing in these cases. At this hearing, unless the defendant is a clear flight risk or threat to public safety, reasonable jail release terms are usually available, as per the Eighth Amendment.
At the first court date, the defendant usually decides whether to hire a private Rochester criminal defense lawyer or a public defender.
Sometimes, the defendant doesn’t have a choice. Judges only appoint lawyers for indigent defendants. Different judges define “indigent” in different ways. Frequently, if the defendant is out on bond, the defendant isn’t indigent.
A court-appointed lawyer or public defender isn’t necessarily a bad idea if available. Most judges only appoint experienced Rochester criminal defense lawyers. Pitfalls abound. For example, stories of overworked public defenders are usually exaggerated, but they’re not entirely false. Additionally, the defendant has no say so in the appointment process. You get who you get, and you don’t throw a fit.
A private Rochester criminal defense lawyer is usually a better option. Defendants choose their lawyers and can fire them at almost any time.
This word, which could involve one court setting or multiple settings, is Legalese for “deciding what to do next.”
Initially, a lawyer evaluates the case and looks for defenses. In some ways, these defenses usually involve the burden of proof in a criminal case. Prosecutors must establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. Because this standard is so high, they probably won’t get convictions unless prosecutors have overwhelming evidence.
Evidence credibility is vital. For example, a witness might pick a suspect from a blind lineup (the administering officer knows the suspect’s identity). These lineups aren’t very reliable. A double-blind lineup (neither the administering officer nor the witness knows the suspect’s identity) is much more solid.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Procedural defenses often apply. Let’s go back to the DUI example. Police officers must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to detain motorists. They cannot pull over drivers because they don’t “look right” or “act right.”
An affirmative defense might apply as well. For instance, an affirmative defense like self-defense might use in an assault case.
Sometimes, the evaluation process involves some investigation. Perhaps a Rochester criminal defense lawyer finds an alibi witness or a witness who saw things differently.
In the modern justice system, only a handful of cases go to trial.3 Many people criticize the plea bargain system for its lack of transparency. Plea negotiations usually take place behind closed doors. But that’s the system we have.
If a Rochester criminal defense lawyer identifies and effectively leverages a procedural or substantive defense during these negotiations, charge reduction pleas, like the Albert McKenzie plea, are likely. A lesser punishment, like probation instead of jail time, is also expected.
Monroe County has two types of probation: regular probation and deferred disposition. Regular probation is, well, standard. Deferred disposition is, well, irregular. The defendant pleads guilty or no contest (the two pleas have the same legal effect), but the judge doesn’t find the defendant guilty. Instead, the judge defers that part of the criminal justice system until the defendant completes probation. If the defendant toes the line, the judge dismisses the case.
Pretrial diversion, a form of pretrial deferred disposition, is also often available. Prosecutors drop the charges if the defendant performs community service and jumps through other hoops. Pretrial diversion is usually only available for misdemeanors.
If prosecutors at a Rochester criminal defense lawyer can’t agree on a disposition, the defendant has two options. Some defendants choose open pleas. These defendants quite literally throw themselves at the mercy of the court. A bench or jury trial is an option as well.
Probation violations and early discharge motions are the most common post-conviction matters in Monroe County.
Prosecutors file probation violation motions if the defendant violates a condition of probation, such as committing a new infraction, possessing a prohibited substance, or missing a meeting. Usually, a Rochester criminal defense lawyer convinces prosecutors to give the defendant a second chance. Sometimes, in return, the defendant must show something, like serving a few days in jail as a condition of reinstatement.
Under New York law, a judge may terminate probation at any time if the probationer doesn’t need guidance, training, or other assistance which would otherwise be administered through probation supervision, the probationer has diligently complied with the terms and conditions of the sentence of probation, and the termination of the punishment of probation is not opposed to the protection of the public.
In practical terms, if the defendant’s supervision officer agrees to the early discharge motion and the defendant is completely paid up in terms of fines and restitution, many judges sign them without holding hearings.
There’s a big difference between a criminal arrest and a criminal conviction. Contact the Law Office of Frank Ciardi for a free consultation with an experienced Rochester underage drinking attorney. We routinely handle matters in Monroe County and nearby jurisdictions.