Former State Prosecutor
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Being charged with a criminal offense in Florida can be very overwhelming, especially if you are not familiar with the Florida criminal process or the rights available to you. These are critical things to understand when facing criminal charges. Every step in the process is important to your case and in determining whether it will go to trial, be reduced or be dismissed altogether.
A law enforcement officer may arrest an individual without a warrant based on their reasonable belief or probable cause that a crime has been committed. In many cases, the individual is arrested and brought to the jail for booking and processing including fingerprinting and booking photos.
An arrest may also be accomplished by the law enforcement officer issuing a Notice To Appear (NTA). Officers have the discretion to arrest an individual where they have reasonable belief or probable cause that a crime has been committed by a paper citation called a Notice To Appear. Typically a Notice To Appear is used by officers when dealing with non-violent misdemeanor crimes including but not limited to Possession of Marijuana, Possession of Paraphernalia, and Shoplifting (Retail Theft). The Notice To Appear requires an alleged offender to appear in a specific court at a designated date and time. The alleged offender must sign the Notice To Appear to be released from the officer's custody. Individuals sometimes misinterpret a paper arrest and believe that they have simply received a non-criminal citation. This could not be further from the truth as a Notice To Appear is no different than being physically arrested in terms of the potential consequences.
An arrest may take place after the issuance of an Arrest Warrant by a Judge. The law enforcement agency or the State Attorney’s Office must produce an Affidavit that shows probable cause that a crime has been committed by the alleged offender. If the Affidavit satisfies the Judge’s examination for probable cause, the Arrest Warrant is issued and the alleged offender will be arrested by law enforcement.
Contrary to popular belief, a criminal arrest by law enforcement does not mean that the alleged offender has been formally charged with a crime. When an individual violates a law of the State of Florida, the aggrieved party is the State, thus the case title in criminal case is “State of Florida vs. Name of Alleged Offender.”
The State of Florida employs a State Attorney’s Office in every County within the State staffed by attorneys that are referred to as prosecutors or Assistant State Attorneys. It is the responsibility of the prosecutor to determine whether or not to formally charge an individual that has been arrested for a crime.
After reviewing the Complaint and Affidavit of the law enforcement agents who made the arrest, a prosecutor makes a decision on whether or not to file a formal criminal charge on behalf of the State of Florida. When the State Attorney’s Office makes a decision to formally file it is called filing an Information. If the State Attorney’s Office makes a decision not to file formal charges it is called a No Information (in some counties it is referred to as a Nolle Prosequi), and the case is dropped.
It should be noted that there is a period of time that exists between a criminal arrest and the State Attorney’s Office making a determination on whether or not to file a formal charge in a case.
First, the State Attorney’s Office must assign a prosecutor to the case. Second, the prosecutor must have adequate time to review the Complaint and Affidavit provided by law enforcement to make a decision on the case. This period of time is of critical importance to the defense of a criminal case. If you hire a criminal defense attorney during this window of time the attorney may be able to negotiate with the State Attorney’s Office to have the charges dropped (No Information) or reduced to a less serious charge.
The defense attorney’s ability to deal with the potential formal charges is always based on the facts and circumstances of each case, so there are no guaranteed results. That said, it is important to have a criminal defense attorney present your side of the facts so that the State Attorney’s Office has a balanced view of the case. It is very important to present the State Attorney’s Office with your side of the facts and circumstances. Additionally, providing the State Attorney information about you as an individual (your education, family background, career and any other important details) can have a persuasive influence on the State’s decision, and serves to show the State Attorney that the case is about a person and not just a single alleged incident.
Without this attempt at early intervention, the State Attorney’s Office only has the law enforcement’s reports to rely on.
If a criminal defense attorney is successful in having your charges dropped, you may qualify to have the arrest and related court filings expunged from your record.
If formal charges are filed against you, there are still numerous courses of action that your criminal defense attorney can take to successfully resolve the case on your behalf.
An attorney can determine if you are eligible to participate in a Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) (as it is referred to in Pinellas County) or Misdemeanor Intervention Program (MIP) (as it is referred to in Hillsborough County). These programs are offered by the respective State Attorney’s Office to first-time offenders who have committed a misdemeanor or third-degree felony. Pre-trial intervention programs are an excellent option because if the conditions and requirements of the program are completed successfully, the State Attorney’s Office agrees to dismiss the criminal charge. It should be noted that the State Attorney’s office determines eligibility and the requirements of each program individually. Typical requirements include community service, counseling, and supervision.
If you do not qualify for a pre-trial intervention program, or if such a program is not the right fit for your individual circumstances, an attorney can help you determine if a negotiated plea is the right option. A negotiated plea typically involves entering a plea to the charges (no contest or guilty) and receiving an agreement from the State Attorney’s Office on a potential disposition of the case. A negotiated plea removes the uncertainty of a jury trial and in most cases resolves the case in the shortest period of time.
Finally, an attorney can advise you if a jury trial may be the best option for your case.
Overall, it is critical to understand the timing of events in a criminal case. Early intervention is key and having an attorney to represent you at all stages of the proceeding is beneficial in almost all cases. If you need more information and need to get in touch with a formal charges attorney, give us a call at (727) 388-4736.
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