The most common question I run into as a Washington State Criminal Defense Attorney is, “How can you defend criminals?” This question is generally based on two assumptions: 1. the Defendant is obviously guilty; and 2. by defending him or her, you are trying to let this obviously guilty person get away with their crime. As you will see, these assumptions turn out to be incorrect.
Arrest Does Not Equal Guilt
It’s tempting to think that a Defendant must be guilty because the police arrested him or her for something. However, the law has a much different standard for judging when an arrest is valid versus when a conviction is called for.
A valid arrest requires Probable Cause. This term gets defined in different ways but generally exists when the facts and circumstances known to the arresting officer are sufficiently trustworthy to cause a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been committed. If you think about that definition for awhile, it becomes apparent that it’s actually a very low standard; and it should be.
The rule is designed to make sure that there is some evidence before an arrest is made but balance the requirements for how strong that evidence is with the speed of decision required to catch criminals.
Here’s an example: A woman tells the police that a man stole her purse. The police ask the man and he denies knowing anything about the purse. Finally, the purse cannot be located. Under Probable Cause, there would be enough to justify arresting the man since the woman said he stole her purse. Do we know whether or not he did it? No. Should we let the Court System determine whether or not the man is guilty? Of course!
Knowing that an arrest simply starts the Court Process, Officers often err on the side of making an arrest in a close call; as they should. Even the instructions read to Jurors emphasize the point, stating that the fact the Defendant was arrested has no bearing on whether or not he or she is guilty of the crime charged.
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
We’ve all heard it on TV but the standard in a criminal case is “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” But what does that mean? The term “reasonable doubt” can be defined differently but is generally:
One for which a reason exists and may arise from the evidence or lack of evidence. It is such a doubt as would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully, fairly, and carefully considering all of the evidence or lack of evidence.
If we required a police officer to be convinced Beyond a Reasonable Doubt before they could even arrest someone, all of the “bad guys” would get away before the officer even concluded his investigation.
What do you do if someone is guilty?
If someone is guilty then there is nothing an Attorney can do about it. Keep in mind that
A jury is made up of regular people. No matter how skilled the attorney is, if the defendant is obviously guilty the jury will convict. In this case, the attorney’s job has two parts: discovering which charges the defendant is actually guilty of and making sure the sentence is rational.
People are often over charged, i.e. accused of more than the State can prove. An example of this is where someone is accused of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and Reckless Driving. Very few cases of DUI also meet the standards required for Reckless Driving. In this case, if the Defendant is guilty of DUI but not reckless, a good Criminal Defense Attorney should be able to get the Reckless Driving charge thrown out even though the Defendant is ultimately convicted of DUI.
Once a Defendant is found guilty, the Court’s next job is to impose sentence. The Attorney’s job becomes making sure that the sentence is appropriate for the crime charged and the Defendant’s criminal history. As a general rule, the more criminal convictions someone has, the more harshly they will be sentenced on any new charges. Sometimes, however, the prosecution will seek to punish someone with little or no history the same as they would a career felon. By sentencing first time offenders and career criminals the same, we do not reward those people who have lived basically good lives nor punish hard enough those who choose a life of crime.
What do you do if the State cannot prove the charge?
There are two major categories of cases where the Prosecution fails to prove their case, either at the outset or at trial.
At the Outset
There are often times when the Prosecution simply does not have any evidence that a Defendant is guilty of a crime. In this case, you can file a Motion to Dismiss and ask that a Judge review the evidence to see if a dismissal is required. This motion can require that witnesses appear and give testimony or it can be based on the police reports themselves.
If the Prosecution has evidence that someone is guilty, that is not the end of the matter. How strong is that evidence? Are the witnesses believable? Do they have a grudge against the Defendant? The heart of our judicial system is the Jury Trial. A trial is literally the first time when anyone hears ALL of the evidence. Trials can be stressful but in a close case they can be a life saver.
Technicalities and The Law
I often hear people say that a Defendant got off due to some technicality. There are no “technicalities” in Law, there is only The Law. Should it apply to everyone or should we allow the government to be immune from following the law? If the police violate the law, then the remedy can range from suppressing evidence to throwing out the case entirely.
The Court System is our best attempt at creating a process that is fair. Like any system, however, it is only as good as the people who work within it. Defending people accused of crimes is not about “helping them get away with it,” rather it is about ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. At The Cahoon Law Office, we still focus on one client at a time and ensure that all legal defenses and rights for our clients are used and protected.