Your Rights as a Defendant in a Criminal Action
It is one of the great ironies of American culture that in this “free” country, we have the highest rate of incarcerations in the world. While the United States is home to only five percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of the global prison population . . . which begs the question, what do we mean by a free country?
Locking people up for a wide range of crimes is a feature of American society, but if you’ve been accused of a crime, the outcome will often hinge on the quality of legal representation you have. The United States Constitution contains provisions designed to protect the accused in various ways. On paper, our justice system looks good, and yet our government strips away the freedom of so many. While we do have constitutional rights, they are of little use unless we fully avail ourselves of those rights. This begins by asserting your right to counsel immediately if you have been questioned, arrested, or detained by law enforcement.
In Pennsylvania, as in all other states, every person charged with a crime has certain constitutionally guaranteed protections, including but not limited to: the right to a speedy trial, the right against self-incrimination, the right to trial by jury, the right to counsel, and the right to confront witnesses. Call an experienced Pittsburgh criminal lawyer at the first hint that you are being accused of a crime, even if charges have not yet been filed.
Should I cooperate in a criminal investigation?
However, those individuals unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and who find themselves to be the subject or target of a criminal investigation, frequently unknowingly assist law enforcement officials in developing reasonable suspicion or probable cause that ultimately result in their arrest. The issues of whether to cooperate in an ongoing criminal investigation; provide written, oral or videotaped statements to law enforcement officials; or consent to a request for a warrantless search will be addressed below.
- No Duty to Cooperate with Law Enforcement Officials. There is absolutely no duty to cooperate with police, detectives, special agents, or other law enforcement officials in an ongoing criminal investigation; particularly when the individual whose cooperation is sought is the “subject” or “target” of the investigation. In other words, there is no duty to provide information that may be interpreted by law enforcement officials as incriminating. Many people make the mistake of attempting to “talk their way out” of criminal charges. Invariably, such attempts prove unsuccessful and lead to an arrest. Frequently, law enforcement officials seek cooperation because they do not have sufficient information to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause to arrest. Generally, law enforcement officials request voluntary cooperation in order to “fill in the blanks” of their criminal investigation; and will emphasize that the person whose cooperation is sought is not under arrest and is free to leave or discontinue the “interview.” However, since there is no way to know the source, content, or accuracy of the information possessed by law enforcement officials, all requests to provide information should be resisted “out of an abundance of caution.” Under no circumstances should an individual provide information to law enforcement officials without the involvement of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
- No Duty to Provide Statements. The right against self-incrimination is guaranteed by the constitutions of both the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Generally, voluntary statements (oral, written or recorded) made to law enforcement officials during the course of a criminal investigation, regardless of location, may be introduced at trial as evidence against an accused and labeled as an “admission” or ” confession“. Notification of Miranda rights (i.e, “you have a right to remain silent, anything you say will be used against you in a court of law, you have a right to an attorney and, an attorney will be provided if you cannot afford one”) are required only during “custodial interrogations”. In other words, law enforcement officials must advise individuals of their Miranda rights prior to questioning (i.e., interrogation), but only when the individual is in custody (i.e., either under arrest or not free to leave.)Frequently, law enforcement officials are trained in the art of custodial interrogation, and are frequently successful in obtaining “false admissions”. As it is extremely difficult to successfully defend criminal cases involving admissions or confessions, any such statements should be avoided regardless of any promises or inducements offered by law enforcement officials.
- No Duty to Consent to a Warrantless Search. The constitutions of both the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania guarantee all citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of their bodies, clothing, personal effects, residences, vehicles, and any other area where they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” As a general rule, searches are illegal unless accompanied by a search warrant that is supported by probable cause. Frequently, however, requests for permission to conduct warrantless searches occur during vehicle stops (“Do you mind if I search your vehicle for weapons or drugs?”) or “knock and talk” encounters at residences (“Can we come in and talk with you?”) While there are exceptions to the warrant requirement such as the “plain view doctrine”, there is absolutely no duty to assist in an investigation by voluntarily consenting to a request to search, particularly in situations where law enforcement officials have not previously obtained a search warrant. It is extremely difficult for a criminal defense attorney to attack the legality of a warrantless search when consent (written or otherwise) has been given and, consequently, all requests for consent should be denied.
If You Qualify For A Public Defender… Think Twice
Your constitutional right to counsel can be fulfilled by assigning you a public defender. But even if finances are an issue, accepting the services of a PD may not be your best choice. Certainly many of the attorneys working in the Public Defender’s office are smart and committed to justice. But they are also over-worked, often carrying hundreds of cases at a time, making it virtually impossible for them to give any one case the amount of attention that every criminal case deserves. They do their best, but with that kind of a caseload, they need to dispose of as many cases as possible, in the least possible amount of time. If your freedom and reputation are important to you, you need more—you need a Pittsburgh criminal lawyer who is dedicated to and focused on your needs, and who has the time to ensure that your rights are fully protected and to raise an aggressive defense in your behalf.
While you may be concerned about the cost of hiring a private defense lawyer, doing so may turn out to be financially advantageous. You can’t work for a living if you end up in jail, and on top of jail time, many criminal sentences contain high fines. Compared to the potential costs of a conviction, the cost of having the right lawyer is usually extremely small and well worth the expense.
Even if you think you can’t afford a private attorney, give Gary Gerson a call. Payment plans are available. Having the right Pittsburgh criminal lawyer working for you, depending on the circumstances of your case, can make the difference between suffering from incarceration, fines, disenfranchisement, and loss of your reputation and being able to return to your home, your job, and your community relatively unscathed.