Maryland Criminal Charges
Facing Maryland Criminal Charges in the Court System
To execute the warrant, a prosecutor and a judge must sign off on the warrant and agree that there is probable cause for the offense. Probable cause is one of the lowest standards in the law and basically is equivalent to a “reason to believe” the offense occurred. Now, getting arrested does not mean that you will automatically be convicted. For the State to convict you of a criminal offense, the government must prove the elements of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard of proof under the law. A Maryland criminal attorney can help you fight these charges.
Is the Alleged Crime a Misdemeanor or a Felony?
Based on Maryland law, criminal offenses can be designated misdemeanor or felony offenses. But, unlike some other states, Maryland doesn’t differentiate misdemeanor and felony crimes based on the penalties they carry.
Instead of a typical maximum misdemeanor penalty of a year in the county jail, a misdemeanor criminal conviction can carry a longer jail sentence than a felony conviction. Although felony charges generally carry higher fines and harsh prison penalties, misdemeanor crimes may also carry fines of up to $5,000 and prison sentences of up to 10 years. Aggravating factors can also elevate what is normally a misdemeanor crime to a felony.
Criminal convictions can result in having a criminal record that can follow you for years. Even a misdemeanor conviction can negatively impact your ability to get a job or housing. That’s why making sure your case doesn’t end up with a conviction can be crucial.
Getting Arrested in Maryland
Once a warrant is approved, law enforcement will typically set out to arrest the suspect. In other cases, like a DUI, the officers can make an arrest without a warrant if the crime occurs in the officer’s presence. Taking a DUI again as an example, a DUI usually starts with a traffic stop where the officer observes the driver violate some law or driving regulation. Once the officer observes the driver to give them a ticket, they may start to suspect the driver is under the influence based on their own observations. But in both instances, the impairment and the driving infraction, occur in the officer’s presence, which alleviates their need to obtain a warrant for the arrest. However, when this occurs, drivers have a right to reach out to their DUI attorneys.
Once arrested, the police will book and process the person, and they will go before a Commissioner for a determination on bail or conditions of release. After the initial pretrial hearing, the case gets forwarded to the State’s Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Usually, during prosecution of any offense, the defendant will only have two choices: accept a plea bargain negotiated by a lawyer or take the case to trial.
What Is a Plea Bargain and a Diversion Program for a Maryland Criminal Charge?
A plea bargain typically involves the State reducing or dropping some charges in exchange for the defendant waiving their constitutional rights. These rights include, among other things, the right to a trial, the right to confront witnesses, the right to testify (or not testify), the right to compel exculpatory witnesses to testify on your behalf, and the right to an appeal.
However, in some instances, a third option is available, and it’s called a diversion. Maryland has a couple of different types of diversion options available in some cases. One is called putting the case on a “stet docket.” That basically means that the prosecution decides not to go forward, and the case goes inactive so long as the defendant either completes certain conditions like community service or takes certain classes. In that case the defendant does not get rearrested.
Another option at sentencing is where a judge may put someone in Maryland on Probation before Judgment (often referred to as a “PBJ”). In cases where the defendant gets a PBJ, the defendant must successfully complete probation before judgment (or conviction is entered). If the defendant completes probation successfully, then the conviction never gets entered, and often the case gets expunged.
Going to Trial in Maryland
If the Maryland criminal defense lawyer cannot work out a plea bargain or get some type of diversion for the client, then the defendant may elect to go to trial. In Maryland, charges that have a maximum penalty of less than 90 days are not entitled to a trial by a jury. In those cases, the defendant must have a trial where the judge in the case will determine whether the State proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
In addition, if a defendant makes a jury demand, that will result in the case that may have started in District Court getting moved to Circuit Court. At a trial, the State must prove every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt. That means they must put witnesses on the stand who will testify under oath to what they observed. The defense can cross-examine the government’s witnesses and confront any allegations made. In addition, the defense can subpoena or compel witnesses who may come forward and testify favorably for the defendant.
Jury and Bench Trial: Who Decides on Maryland Criminal Charges
In a jury trial, the judge will instruct jurors (usually 12 members of the community) on what the law is regarding the offense the State has charged. Its up to the jury to decide what the facts of the case are. The jury assesses the credibility of the witnesses and decides who they believe and what they think happened. Not only must they decide what facts they believe, they must believe them beyond a reasonable doubt if the facts support a conviction.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is something we all hear on television but often do not think about what it actually means. It means the State’s evidence must be so convincing that we have no reason to doubt its true. That means the jurors could think its likely the defendant committed the offense but if they have a doubt (not just any doubt but a doubt based on reason) they must acquit the defendant to properly apply the law as instructed.
In a bench trial, however, the judge makes both the factual findings and applies those facts to the law. That means the judge must assess the credibility of the witnesses and decide which version of facts they believe occurred. If the judge properly applies the standard beyond a reasonable doubt, he or she must only convict if that high standard is met. Finally, its important to remember that the burden of proof never shifts the defendant. It always remains on the State to prove the offense. While many defendants put on a legal defense, they are not legally required to do it.
Hiring a Maryland Criminal Lawyer
If arrested for an offense in Maryland, the bottom line is you need a lawyer. Whether it’s a negotiated plea bargain or diversion agreement or going to trial, having a qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney is absolutely necessary to ensure your rights are protected. Having a criminal defense lawyer is so important that the United States Constitution mandates that anyone who cannot afford a lawyer must get one provided by the government.
If you or someone you know has been arrested or facing charges in Maryland, contact Morgan E. Leigh today for a full case evaluation.