Being accused of a crime changes your life in an instant. If you are convicted of the charge, the situation becomes even more serious. You may owe fines, spend time in jail or even face the death penalty. To ensure that you have the best possible chance of avoiding conviction, you need a skilled criminal defense attorney on your side.
Criminal Charges in Texas
Texas criminal charges can be divided into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. While a misdemeanor is a less serious charge with a lighter sentence, a felony is a more serious charge with a harsher sentence.
Three classes of misdemeanors are recognized in Texas:
- Class A misdemeanor convictions may lead to a fine of up to $4,000 and up to one year in jail.
- Class B misdemeanor convictions may lead to a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail.
- Class C misdemeanor convictions may lead to a fine of up to $500.
Texas recognizes five different classes of felonies:
- Capital felony convictions are punishable by life in prison without parole or the death penalty.
- First degree felony convictions may result in five years to life imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
- Second degree felony convictions may result in two to 20 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
- Third degree felony convictions may result in two to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
- State jail felony convictions may result in 180 days to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.
Hiring an Attorney
If you have been arrested, you should not talk to the police. If you have been formally charged with a crime, you should not talk to the police or prosecutors. Anything you tell them can be used against you in court. Instead, you should talk to an attorney as soon as possible once you think you may be a suspect in a criminal investigation. A Texas criminal defense attorney will be able to help you understand the charges you are facing and start working to build your defense.
There is no “typical” criminal case; there are too many variables. Many criminal cases begin when a person is arrested by law enforcement officers, for example, after being pulled over for suspected DWI or when police are called because someone reported an assault. In other cases, someone accused of a crime may only be arrested after charges have been filed against them by information or indictment. In any criminal case, the United States Constitution requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of the elements of the alleged offense. Because the state has such a high burden of proof, it is essential that you not talk to the police before you have talked to a criminal defense attorney.
In the United States, a person must be indicted by a grand jury to be charged with a felony. In Texas, misdemeanor charges can be brought by the filing of “an information” which is a document filed by prosecutors with the appropriate court. Once a person is charged with a felony or misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 26.01 requires they be brought before a magistrate (a judge) for arraignment. The arraignment is a court appearance where the accused is read the charges against them and is then asked to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. Also at the arraignment, persons who cannot afford an attorney should inform the court to see if they may qualify to have a defense attorney appointed. If you can afford an attorney, you should already have one by this point.
In Tarrant County courts, the next step following arraignment is called the “initial appearance.” This is the first appearance by a person accused of a crime in the court where their case will be heard. In Texas, all felony cases are heard in District Courts. Misdemeanor cases in Tarrant County and other large counties are generally heard in County Criminal Courts but this may vary in smaller counties where there may only be a single District Court and a single County Court. At the initial appearance and subsequent appearances, a criminal defense lawyer will discuss the charges against his client with the prosecutor and may receive plea agreement offers. The decision to accept or reject a plea agreement is always within the control of the client.
A criminal defense attorney can obtain the evidence the state intends to use, a process referred to as “discovery.” Discovery in a criminal case can include police reports, witness statements, dashcam or other video tapes, blood test results, and any other document or object that the state has in its possession that is relevant to the case. After reviewing the state’s evidence, your defense attorney can better assess the strength of the state’s case against you. Understanding the facts and evidence will allow you and your attorney to decide how best to proceed with your defense.
Depending on all of the facts and any plea agreement being offered by the state, accepting a plea agreement may be the best option. For example, if there is strong evidence against an accused and the state is offering a plea deal that will allow the accused to avoid a final conviction (like deferred adjudication), taking the plea agreement may be the best outcome possible. But in other cases, where the evidence is not so strong and the plea agreement that is offered is not much better than the likely sentence if the accused is found guilty by the judge or jury, then there may be little incentive to accept the plea agreement and taking the case needs to be taken to trial.