So now you’re either sitting in jail or out on your own recognizance or some sort of bond. What do you do next? Get a lawyer. Immediately. You should obtain a skilled attorney as soon as possible. You should do some research to make sure that this person is qualified to represent you and has some experience in criminal defense (obviously I hope you will choose my firm but there are many good criminal defense attorneys out there). Every attorney is different and brings with them a different set of skills and experience. For instance, I wouldn’t consider myself qualified to handle a complicated divorce or real estate transaction but I would feel confident handling a personal injury case because I have experience in that area. Feel free to contact a number of different attorneys to compare rates. However, be wary of anyone who promises you a specific result. Do not delay. Depending on your case, there are a number of major and minor clocks that have already begun ticking – most of which you won’t know about. For instance, in D.C. the Metropolitan Police Department has a policy of maintaining surveillance tapes from within the station for 30 days. After 30 days they are automatically deleted and taped over (this is all digital of course). If your attorney doesn’t request a copy of the surveillance footage within those 30 days, they will become unavailable. This may be important in DUI cases, cases in which the police didn’t properly obtain a voluntary waiver of your rights, etc. A little bit about fees . . . 1. Flat Fees Many criminal defense attorneys use flat fees. That is, you will call them and tell them what you were charged with. They will ask you a bit more about the case and then give you a quote. There is no magic formula for arriving at this number. Generally attorneys have an idea of how much their hourly rate is in order to turn a profit. They can also estimate how much time they will need to spend on your case. Add in the the likelihood that the case will result in a plea agreement or go to trial and they arrive at a quote. Some attorneys have larger caseloads and will only handle your case for a large fee. Others may be more flexible in working with your financial situation. Most attorneys will require that you pay all or the majority of the fee up front. This is standard practice. Once we’ve been retained, we have an ethical obligation to represent your interests to the fullest extent reasonable. That means we aren’t agreeing to do X hours of work for a certain fee. It means we are agreeing to do as many hours of work necessary to represent you fully for a certain fee. This is why we ask for the money up front – if we don’t, we risk spending hours upon hours on your case with the possibility of not being paid in the end. 2. Hourly Fees Some criminal defense attorneys charge by the hour. They will be able to tell you their hourly rate and may be able to give you an estimate of how many hours they anticipate needing to work on your case. However, this estimation is not a quote nor a promise. If something unexpected occurs and your case becomes more complicated, more time-consuming, you will still have to pay the hourly rate. Many people cannot afford to pay an attorney $300+ per hour for a case that may conceivably go to trial (a murder trial, for instance, can last days if not weeks). Criminal defense attorneys that charge by the hour often represent corporations or wealthy individuals charged with ‘white-collar’ crimes. 3. Contingency Fees Contingency fees are fees that are only earned if the attorney obtains a specific result. For instance, most personal injury attorneys charge on a contingent basis. If you win, they take 33-40%. If you lose, you pay them nothing. Contingency fees are not used by criminal defense attorneys and are actually considered unethical in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.
Once you’ve come to an agreement with an attorney, you can (and should) confide in them fully. Every communication between you and your attorney is confidential. Absent extreme situations, your attorney may not divulge anything you’ve told them unless you expressly permit them to do so. Even ‘bad facts’ – your attorney cannot protect you from what they don’t know about. The worst thing is when a client and the prosecutor both know something the defense attorney doesn’t know. Many a case is lost because the client failed to tell his/her attorney an important fact. If you’re in jail: As soon as possible you should contact a trusted family member or friend and have them obtain an attorney on your behalf. They will likely have to spot you the fee/initial deposit. The attorney will then make arrangements to come visit you as soon as possible to discuss the case and the legal strategy. Your attorney may also be able to petition the court to release you on bond. If you are in jail it is extremely important that you not discuss your case or the charges against you with ANYONE BUT YOUR LAWYER. Prosecutors love ‘jail-house snitches.’ Recently I sat in a D.C. courtroom and watched as a prisoner testified against his former cellmate in a murder case. That prisoner had been offered a reduced sentence in exchange for his ‘honest’ testimony. Luckily, for the defendant, he had excellent representation and the jury didn’t buy the prisoner’s testimony.
So now you have a lawyer. Congratulations! You no longer need to worry about your case. That is your attorney’s job. Your attorney will spend hours upon hours poring over the details of your case, doing legal research, investigating and interviewing witnesses, negotiating with the government and filing and arguing motions on your behalf. Your attorney will be thinking about your case when he/she goes to bed at night and first thing when they wake up in the morning. This is our duty and obligation to you. We cannot promise you that the case will be dismissed or that you won’t serve any time, but you can rest assured that you are now being represented to the fullest effect of the law and that your attorney is fighting constantly to achieve the best result possible in your case.