Criminal Law and Procedure
If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in Oklahoma what happens next can be very intimidating. The procedures in a criminal case can be complex and confusing especially when your freedom may be at stake. Oklahoma Criminal law and the procedures outlined within it is what gives the government (local police, FBI, ATF, ect..) the right to intrude in your private life. While the police are required to follow a procedure (and often they do not), they may not always search for the truth. Criminal law is a very adversarial process and once you have been arrested the prosecuting attorney will do everything he can to convict you. Having an experienced Oklahoma criminal attorney with extensive knowledge of Oklahoma criminal law and procedure on your side can make the difference in whether you go home or go to jail.
Who decides how the criminal justice system works?
Though legislators have relatively unfettered power to decide whether a certain behavior should be a crime, many rules limit the ways in which the state or federal government can prosecute someone for a crime. These restrictions start with the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, which provides basic protections,such as the right to refuse to testify against oneself, the right to confront one's accusers and the right to a trial by jury, for people charged with crimes. State constitutions may increase (but not take away from) the federal protections. Federal and state legislatures can pass laws governing how criminal procedures work in their jurisdictions, but these laws cannot reduce the protections offered by the federal and state constitutions. The interplay between constitutional provisions and legislative enactments is regulated by our courts. Courts decide whether or not a particular legislative rule, court practice or police action is permissible under federal and state constitutional law. What may seem like a slight variation from one case to another can be, in the eyes of a court, the determining factor that leads to a vastly different result. For example, a police officer is frisking a suspect on the street and feels a hard object in the suspect's pocket. Suspecting that the object is a possible weapon, the officer reaches into the pocket and finds both a cardboard cigarette box and a packet of heroin. This action by the police officer -- reaching into the pocket -- would be deemed a permissible search under the rulings of most courts (to protect the officer's safety), and the heroin could be admitted into court as evidence. However, if the object felt by the officer was soft and obviously not a weapon, then reaching into the suspect's pocket might be deemed an illegal search, in which case the heroin couldn't be used as evidence.
What's the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?
Most states break their crimes into two major groups-felonies and misdemeanors. Whether a crime falls into one category or the other depends on the potential punishment. If a law provides for imprisonment for longer than a year, it is usually considered a felony. If the potential punishment is for a year or less, then the crime is considered a misdemeanor. In some states, certain crimes may be considered either a misdemeanor or a felony, because under some conditions the punishment may be imprisonment for less than a year, and in other situations, the criminal may go to prison for a year or more. Behaviors punishable only by fine are usually not considered crimes at all, but infractions, for example, traffic tickets. But a legislature may on occasion punish behavior only by fine and still provide that it is a misdemeanor, such as possession of small quantities of marijuana.
How can I tell from reading a criminal statute whether I'm guilty of the crime it defines?
All criminal statutes define crimes in terms of required acts and a required state of mind, usually described as the accused's "intent." These requirements are known as the "elements" of the offense. The prosecuting attorney must convince a judge or jury that the person charged with the crime (the defendant) did the acts and had the intent described in the statute. For example, commercial burglary is commonly defined as entering a structure (such as a store) belonging to another person, with the intent to commit petty or grand theft (that is, to steal) or any felony. To convict a person of this offense, the prosecutor would have to prove three elements: 1. The defendant entered the structure. 2. The structure belonged to another person. 3. At the time the defendant entered the structure, he intended to commit petty or grand theft or any felony. You will have to do the same when you read the law. Separate the crime into its required elements to see if each applies in your situation.
What is the "presumption of innocence?"
All people accused of a crime are legally presumed to be innocent until they are convicted, either in a trial or as a result of pleading guilty. This presumption means not only that the prosecuting attorney must convince the jury of the defendant's guilt, but also that the defendant need not say or do anything in his own defense. If the prosecuting attorney can't convince the jury that the defendant is guilty, the defendant goes free. The presumption of innocence, coupled with the fact that the prosecuting attorney must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (see below), theoretically makes it difficult for the government to put people behind bars.
What does it mean to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt?"
The prosecuting attorney must convince the judge or jury hearing the case that the defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." This standard is very hard to meet. (By contrast, in non-criminal cases, such as an accident or breach of contract, a plaintiff has to prove her case only by a preponderance of the evidence, just over 50%.) As a practical matter, the high burden of proof in criminal cases means that judges and jurors are supposed to resolve all doubts about the meaning of the evidence in favor of the defendant. With such a high standard imposed on the prosecutor, a defendant's most common defense is often to argue that there is reasonable doubt-that is, that the prosecuting attorney hasn't done a sufficient job of proving that the defendant is guilty.
If I'm accused of a crime, am I guaranteed a trial by a jury?
Yes. The U.S. Constitution gives a person accused of a crime the right to be tried by a jury. This right has long been interpreted to mean a 12-person jury that must arrive at a unanimous decision to convict or acquit. (In most states, a lack of unanimity is called a "hung jury" and the defendant will go free unless the prosecuting attorney decides to retry the case. In Oregon and Louisiana, however, juries may convict or acquit on a vote of ten to two.) The potential jurors must be selected randomly from the community, and the actual jury must be selected by a process which allows the judge and lawyers to screen out biased jurors (In Oklahoma a jury of 6 is selected for misdemeanor trials and a jury of 12 is selected for felony trials). In addition, a lawyer may eliminate several potential jurors simply because he feels that these people would not be sympathetic to his side, but these decisions may not be based on the juror's personal characteristics, such as race, sex, religion or national origin.
However, there are some exceptions to your right to trial by jury. In some municipal courts where the punishment range is very minimal, you do not have the right to a trial by jury.
Can a jury acquit me even if I broke the law?
The jury has the ultimate power to decide whether a person is guilty of a crime. As the "conscience of the community," jurors can free a defendant even if they think the defendant actually committed the crime charged. The name for this power is "jury nullification." It has always been a part of our judicial system. When jurors nullify a law by acquitting a defendant who has obviously broken that law, judge and prosecuting attorney can do nothing about it. A jury's not guilty verdict is final. Jury nullification rarely occurs, but when it does, it most often involves cases that have a political component (such as the refusal to convict draft dodgers during the Vietnam War) or that have harsh punishments the jury does not want to impose on that particular defendant.
What is self-defense?
Self-defense is a common defense asserted by someone charged with a crime of violence, such as battery (striking someone), assault with a deadly weapon or murder. The defendant admits that she did in fact commit the crime, but claims that it was justified by the other person's threatening actions. The core issues in most self-defense cases are: · Who was the aggressor? · Was the defendant's belief that self-defense was necessary a reasonable one? · If so, was the force used by the defendant also reasonable? Self-defense is rooted in the belief that people should be allowed to protect themselves from physical harm. This means that a person does not have to wait until she is actually struck to act in self-defense. If a reasonable person would think that she is about to be physically attacked, she has the right to strike first and prevent the attack. But she cannot use more force than is reasonable-if she does, she may be guilty of a crime.
What happens if a defendant is judged "incompetent to stand trial?"
Aside from insanity as a defense to criminal charges, the question may arise as to whether a defendant is mentally capable of facing a trial. Defendants cannot be prosecuted if they suffer from a mental disorder that prevents them from understanding the proceedings and assisting in the preparation of their defense. Based on a defendant's unusual behavior, a judge, prosecuting attorney or defense lawyer may ask that trial be delayed until the defendant has been examined and her ability to understand the proceedings has been determined in a court hearing. If a judge finds that a defendant doesn't understand what's going on, the defendant will probably be placed in a mental institution until her competence is re-established. At that time, the trial will be held.
Can a defendant go free because he was drunk or high on drugs when he committed a crime?
Defendants who commit crimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol sometimes argue that their mental functioning was so impaired that they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Generally, however, voluntary intoxication does not excuse criminal conduct. People know (or should know) that alcohol and drugs affect mental functioning, and thus they should be held legally responsible if they commit crimes as a result of their voluntary use. Some states allow an exception to this general rule. If the defendant is accused of committing a crime that requires what's known as "specific intent" (intending the precise consequences, as well as intending to do the physical act that leads up to the consequences), the defendant can argue that he was too drunk or high to have formed that intent. This is only a partial defense, however, because it doesn't entirely excuse the defendant's actions. In this situation, the defendant will usually be convicted of another crime that doesn't require proof of a specific intent-for example, assault with a deadly weapon instead of assault with the intent to commit murder.