what is criminal defense?

“Criminal defense” broadly refers to the legal work of attorneys dedicated to protecting the rights of those that are being, or have already been, prosecuted (in either state or federal court) for allegedly committing a crime.

Rights of Criminal Defendants

A person accused of a crime is commonly referred to as a “criminal defendant.” Criminal defendants have legal rights which typically come from the constitution or statutes. Statutes are written laws that are created by the legislature, such as the Penal  Code. When a defendant is prosecuted in a California state court (the Superior Court of California) their rights are protected by the California and U.S. Constitutions, as well as California statutes. However, for defendants prosecuted in a federal court (the U.S. District Court), generally only the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes provide protections – not the California Constitution.

Criminal Trials

The work of a criminal defense attorney typically begins when charges are filed by the county district attorney or U.S. attorney (usually after an arrest) and the defendant is required to appear in the trial court (Superior Court or U.S. District Court) to be arraigned. The purpose of an arraignment is for the defendant to be formally informed of the charges against him. At that time, the defendant will normally enter a plea of not guilty, and the court will set a pretrial hearing date. Although the procedures subsequent to arraignment vary somewhat depending on the whether the charged offense is a felony or misdemeanor, usually the case will take one of two paths in the trial court: the defendant will enter into a plea bargain with the prosecution, or demand a jury trial.

Throughout this process in the trial court, the defendant has the right to the assistance of an attorney. A Defendant can hire their own attorney, or if they can’t afford one, the court will appoint an attorney. In most counties, the public defender’s office is responsible for representing defendants that can’t afford to hire their own attorney.

Criminal Appeals

Ordinarily, a defendant has no basis to appeal a conviction and sentence which are the result of a plea bargain. However, defendants convicted at trial have a right to appeal the judgment to a higher court. In most state cases, the defendant’s trial attorney won’t handle the appeal; rather, a different attorney will be appointed to represent the defendant through the state appellate process. With federal cases, the federal public defender represents the defendant through the trial and appeals.

More often than not, appealing a criminal conviction is lengthy process. When appealing a state criminal conviction, even the first level of appeals can take several years to complete. A defendant convicted in a California Court can potential appeal his or her conviction to five different courts – two California courts, and three federal courts. 

Other Criminal-Related Issues and Proceedings

Although criminal trials and appeals are the main events in criminal defense, arrests and criminal prosecutions often have collateral consequences that many criminal defense attorneys are equipped to handle. For instance, most DUI attorneys can, in addition to handling their client’s criminal case, also represent their client in administrative DMV proceedings, where the client’s driving privilege is at stake. Similarly, most criminal defense attorneys can assist clients with cleaning criminal records and dealing with the consequences of having a criminal record, such as issues related to professional licensing, probation and parole, and sex offender registration.