California Criminal Law FAQ
I am Peter M. Liss and I can help you if you have been accused of any crime, ranging from domestic violence to shoplifting and from DUI to assault. I have helped thousands of clients, tried more than 100 jury trials, and have more than 35 years of experience. Throughout that time, clients have asked me many questions, some almost daily. These commonly asked questions about criminal law issues can help you better understand how to protect your rights as well as what a defense lawyer can and cannot do to help you.
What’s the Difference Between an Infraction, Misdemeanor or Felony?
An infraction is something that you will get ticketed for, requiring you to pay a fine. For example, most traffic tickets are infractions. Misdemeanors and felonies are both more serious crimes and can leave you behind bars, but a misdemeanor is a charge that can leave you in jail and carries a sentence of no more than one year in jail and $1,000. Felonies are the most serious criminal charges and can result in prison time.
Do I Need a Criminal Lawyer if I Plan to Plead Guilty?
Yes. Though some people question whether they even need a lawyer, a criminal lawyer can help you fight charges after your arrest and also help you protect your rights while police investigate the crime. Working with an attorney from the start of your case could help keep you from accidentally providing incriminating evidence against yourself or allowing the police to search property they may not otherwise have a right to look at.
A lawyer can also help you better understand the charges you are facing, the strength of the evidence against you, what defenses are available to you, and what sentences you’ll likely receive if you are found guilty. If the case goes to trial, he can urge the judge to be lenient in sentencing.
If you are considering pleading guilty, your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain by helping you evaluate your options and work with the prosecutor to negotiate the best possible deal available.
Am I Better off With a Public Defender or Private Attorney?
First, recognize that only those who cannot afford an attorney are provided a public defender. If you aren’t experiencing financial hardships, you will either need to hire an attorney or go without one, which is never a good choice.
If you have the option of a public defender, know that while many people mistakenly believe public attorneys aren’t as high quality as private ones, that’s a myth. A hardworking lawyer dedicated to your case will help you whether he is part of the public defender’s office or a privately-hired defense lawyer. Unfortunately, you cannot be assigned a public defender until you have been charged with a crime.
If you are under investigation, a criminal defense attorney can help protect your rights and this can make a significant difference in helping you fight the charges if they are filed. A public defender cannot help you with this stage of the process since they cannot be assigned until after the charges are filed.
As a final benefit, it’s worth mentioning that you cannot pick your public defender, but you have your choice when it comes to selecting the right private defense attorney you would like to work with.
Is a Private Defense Attorney Worth the Money?
Remember that most criminal charges carry significant fines and if your criminal lawyer can help reduce the penalties or help you prove your innocence, that alone may be worth the cost of their services. That’s aside from potential prison or jail sentences and the effect that having a criminal conviction on your record may have on the rest of your life.
It’s also worth adding that Peter M. Liss offers both reasonable rates and accepts all major credit cards, so financial concerns should come secondary to protecting your rights and proving your innocence. In other words, whenever you can afford the services of an experienced, skilled attorney, it is absolutely worth it to do so.
Should I Work With a Big Firm or Sole Practitioner?
There are many benefits to working with a sole practitioner. You’ll always know who is actually handling your case, and they’ll be more dedicated to your case’s outcome. Plus, large firms have a lot more overhead, meaning they’ll typically be a lot more costly.
But the majority of individuals hiring a lawyer don’t have much choice between sole practitioners and big firms, as most large firms are highly selective about their clientele and focus solely on white collar crimes.
In fact, many criminal law “firms” advertising on search engines are just internet-based law referral companies that contract cases to outside lawyers. While these firms may advertise with “San Diego” keywords, they often contract with attorneys outside the county who know little about San Diego courts and local practices.
When you call these companies, the person answering the phone will usually be a salesperson trying to convince you to use their “firm” through scare tactics or false and unethical statements. If a lawyer ever makes you a promise about your case result, it’s a good sign that you should call someone else.
Should I Talk to the Police if they Ask me to Give my Side of the Story?
Only if your lawyer thinks it’s a good idea and will be present with you. Police often rely on a suspect’s lack of knowledge about the law to get a confession, which is why you should never speak with the police alone when you are arrested or under investigation and instead insist on seeing your attorney.
Should I Refuse to Say Anything to the Police?
Yes and no. Do not make any statements to the police without your attorney present to advise you. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has determined that simply staying silent altogether can be used as a legal indication of guilt. Instead, you must state that you are invoking your right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.
If the police are calling you, state that you are invoking your right to silence, ask for the name and phone number of the police officer you are speaking with, and tell him your attorney will call him back. Then hang up and give your lawyer the information.
If the interaction is in person, ask if you are being detained. If not, say that you are invoking your Fifth Amendment right to silence and that you are leaving since you are free to do so. If you are being detained or have already been placed under arrest, state that you are invoking your Fifth Amendment right and want to see your attorney. The police cannot continue to ask you questions without your lawyer at this point.
If I Wasn’t Read my Miranda Rights, is What I Said Inadmissible in Court?
Miranda warnings only have to be read if a suspect is under arrest and questioned. If the police do not question you after arrest, they do not need to Mirandize you. During the investigation, the police can ask you questions without a Miranda warning as long as you are free to leave.
Should I Take a Lie Detector to Prove my Innocence?
No. In most cases, California law states that evidence from lie detectors can only be admitted to the court as evidence if both parties agree to admit the results. Generally speaking, if it helps your defense, the prosecution will not permit it; if it helps the prosecution, your lawyer will not allow it to be used in court. So ultimately, there is no legal benefit.
If you’re wondering why police even ask you to take a lie detector, the answer is simple: this is yet again another way to get you to confess to something. Even if the test results aren’t admissible in court, what you say during the test is.
How do Attorneys Defend Someone They Know is Guilty?
This seems to be one of the most common criminal questions people ask when they first meet a lawyer in a social setting. Attorneys must vigorously defend everyone, including the guilty, to ensure the government doesn’t convict people without solid evidence. Otherwise, the system would end up snaring innocent people. The guilty are also entitled to a fair process, including a lawyer protecting their rights and a just sentence. Criminal lawyers are upholding the rights enshrined in our Constitution.
It’s also worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, an attorney cannot ask a client to take the stand if he knows that person plans to lie. So even if an attorney knows the client is guilty, he cannot help that person commit perjury on the stand.
Can my Defense Attorney Help With my Divorce, Lawsuit or Bankruptcy?
No. Just like a pediatrician wouldn’t be the right person to ask to perform anesthesia, lawyers specialize in specific fields and do not switch from one area to another. A defense lawyer cannot and should not offer legal advice for any other area of the law.