Dealing with the criminal justice system can be a frightening and overwhelming experience even if you are not facing the threat of an arrest. Being investigated can be a stressful ordeal because the police are not obligated to explain themselves until their investigation is completed and such action as making an arrest is undertaken. Knowing your legal rights is crucial to protecting your interests in these situations, as well as picking your battles wisely. These qualities, when combined with competent legal help, are your best defenses.
Police investigations begin with the filing of a verbal or written complaint, which is followed by sending officers to a crime scene. Officers interview witnesses and gather physical evidence, if any, and summarize their efforts in their field notes. They write a report that becomes the official narrative of the complaint. If possible, get a copy of this report.
The written report is sent to the prosecutor, who must decide if more investigation is needed or if enough evidence exists to authorize prosecution based on probable cause that a crime has occurred and the person cited in the report committed it. The American Bar Association notes that this should not be confused with proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for conviction at trial.
Arrests and Hearings
If an arrest warrant is issued, the police will detain a suspect until he posts bond. A court may order the suspect held without bail. A suspect is brought in for a hearing, sometimes called an arraignment, at which the charges against him are read. If you are arrested and then released without charges being filed against you, it doesn't mean that you are home free. Police can continue to investigate and may arrest you again if they believe they have stronger evidence against you.
If there is no likelihood of an arrest, a suspect need not admit police into her home, nor accompany them anywhere. However, if approached at work, or in some other public place, a suspect must speak with police.
Protect Your Rights
The period between the arrest and filing of formal charges represents the greatest danger period because many people have a hazy concept of their legal rights. A person under arrest must confirm his identity, but does not have to answer questions nor allow searches of his property unless police have a search warrant. To avoid being tricked into weakening your defense, do not voluntarily sign any statements beyond writing, "I want my lawyer."
Get an Attorney
Generations of TV cop show drama viewers are familiar with the Miranda rights warnings, which advise suspects of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning. However, if police do not plan to question someone, this warning will not be read, Hire an attorney or seek a public defender's help to navigate the legal maze. Failure to do so may seriously harm a person's legal interests before her case has been examined by an attorney.