Criminal Defense Information Center
Frequently Asked Questions about Criminal Defense Law
Q: Do I need a lawyer’s help if I am accused of a crime?
A: It is always in your best interest to consult a criminal defense lawyer as early as possible if you suspect you will be facing the criminal justice system. Whether or not you believe you have been wrongfully accused, an attorney will fight for your legal and constitutional rights and monitor the proceedings for legality and fairness. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may be eligible for free legal counsel.
Q: What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?
A: The traditional definition of a felony is a crime that is punishable by a year or more in jail. A misdemeanor is a crime that is punishable by imprisonment of less than one year. Felonies are more serious crimes than misdemeanors.
Q: What should I do if I am arrested?
A: If the police arrest you, immediately ask to call an attorney. Do not say anything to the police that could incriminate you. Even if you are innocent and were in no way involved in the crime for which you have been arrested, ask for an attorney and do not speak to the police without a criminal defense attorney present.
Q: What is the role of the grand jury?
A: The grand jury decides whether there is sufficient evidence to indict a suspect and continue the criminal proceedings against him or her. The indictment is the formal process of charging a person with a crime. The grand jury reviews the evidence and may hear testimony in deciding whether to indict someone, but the grand jury makes no decision about guilt or innocence. All states use the grand jury system to some extent, though there may be differences in procedures and number of jurors.
Q: What is the role of the prosecutor?
A: The prosecutor is the attorney who represents the federal, state or local government in a case against a criminal defendant. The title of the prosecutor varies by jurisdiction, but some common titles include district attorney, county attorney, city attorney, United States attorney and state attorney. The prosecutor has the public duty to punish those committing crimes, balanced with the duty to fairly try such individuals.
Q: What is the difference between probation and parole?
A: Probation is a type of criminal sentence that allows a person to stay in the community rather than serve time in prison, as long as he or she complies with certain conditions, such as regularly reporting to a probation officer, refraining from alcohol and drugs and not committing further crimes. Parole is the supervised release of a prisoner from incarceration into the community before the end of his or her sentence. Conditions of parole are similar to those of probation.
Q: What is restitution in the criminal context?
A: Depending on the applicable federal or state laws, part of a criminal sentence may include the payment of restitution to the victim or victims for their related losses. Restitution may include compensation for property damage or loss, medical and rehabilitation expenses, lost income or funeral expenses. Part of the philosophy behind criminal restitution is to give the criminal offender a direct part in making things whole with his or her victim.
Q: What is white collar crime?
A: White collar crime refers generally to nonviolent financial crimes involving fraud or other dishonesty committed in business or commercial contexts. Examples include insider trading, embezzlement and tax evasion. White collar crime is sometimes described as “paper crime” or crime that is committed in white collar workplaces as opposed to jobs in blue collar industries.
Q: How are children and youth prosecuted?
A: A minor is prosecuted for criminal conduct in a separate juvenile court system. The philosophy of the juvenile justice system is that children should not be punished or stigmatized for criminal conduct because of their immature abilities to make proper choices and recognize right from wrong. Instead the role of the juvenile justice system is seen as rehabilitative and guiding. For particularly violent crimes, adolescents may be tried in the adult system.
Q: If I am convicted of a crime while I am in the United States legally on a work visa, can I be deported?
A: Yes, if a person who is not a citizen of the United States is convicted of a crime, he or she can be deported. This includes lawful permanent residents who are lawfully living and working in the United States. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, if a non-citizen is convicted of an aggravated felony, a crime of moral turpitude or any one of a number of listed crimes in a third category (such as violations of laws relating to domestic violence, controlled substances and possessing a firearm), he or she is at risk of deportation. In addition to deportation, a conviction may adversely affect a lawful permanent resident’s ability to become a United States citizen.
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