A Private Criminal Defense Lawyer is a Good Idea, Even for Misdemeanors
The NYPD makes literally thousands of arrests for low level, misdemeanor offenses. Statistically we know that many of these cases will be resolved at the first appearance, or arraignment.
In 2011, for example, taking into account that felonies are almost never resolved at arraignment, about 60% of all misdemeanor criminal cases were resolved at arraignments.
Is this good, bad, or something in between, and how does it influence whether I need a lawyer?
Right off the bat, most people's first reaction to this news is that it is great. If the case is finished that could mean that the person is released from jail and never has to go back to Court. If the case is so trivial that there is a 60% chance it will go away first thing, then why bother even to hire a lawyer? Why not "let" Legal Aid do the case?
Here is where you might want to consider things a bit more carefully.
There are a number of legitimate, objective benefits to bringing your own lawyer in to handle the arraignment of even a "minor" criminal matter.
REASON NUMBER 1 - The Case Might Be Resolved
The very thing that causes people to consider not bothering with a lawyer is probably one of the very best reasons to have the lawyer of your choice handle the arraignment. Realize that "finishing" a case means doing something that can't be undone in most situations, and certainly can't be undone easily. The resolution of the case at arraignments is forever.
Therefore, if you resolve a case at arraignments, don't you think it makes sense to make sure that you are in the best possible position and that you aren't failing to consider something important about what you are doing? Don't you think it might be worth it to choose the lawyer you want with the experience you want to be there with you at such an important point in the process? You are going to be called out in front of the judge and, if you are charged with a misdemeanor, you may be made an offer to resolve your case that may sound very tempting to you.
Who do you want standing next to you to help you make this decision? Someone you have never met before, who may or may not have the experience and training you would choose if it were up to you? Or would you want someone who has come to this courtroom for you and only you that day, who has the experience you want in your lawyer?
In a perfect world, who would you choose to be standing there to advise you? Would it really be whichever lawyer happened to be there that day, whether he has years of experience or whether he graduated from school last week?
In minor criminal matters, people often focus on the punishment and are sort of fuzzy about the rest of the details. For example, if you ask someone what happened who was arrested for a misdemeanor who finished his case with the public defender at arraignment, he might well say something like, "Oh it was nothing. I just paid a fine."
This answer tells you nothing important about what happened with the case. All it tells you that the person didn't go to jail. But it doesn't answer probably an even more important question. "What happened to the case?"
A fine is a punishment, just like jail is a punishment. If you plead guilty to something, you can go to jail, but you don't have to go to jail. Instead of sentencing you to jail, a judge has the power to sentence you to pay a fine. So simply resting comfortably with the knowledge that you "paid a fine" isn't enough information to know whether what you did at arraignments was good, bad, or something in between.
If all I know is that someone "paid a fine" it could be that the person plead guilty to a criminal offense and the punishment was a small fine. BUT THE PERSON HAS A CRIMINAL RECORD. It could also be that the person who "just paid a fine" plead guilty to a NON-criminal offense (like disorderly conduct) and paid a fine as punishment for that. In this case the person does not have a criminal record.
Obviously, this is important stuff, worth running by the lawyer of your choice as opposed to the lawyer chosen for you by chance.
Further, if you resolve a case at arraignments, you need to be certain that the resolution of your case will have no impact on your job or your immigration status or your ability to drive or your ability to receive certain federal benefits, including student loans. There are a host of potential consequences to the resolution of criminal accusations that don't even depend on the precise outcome of the criminal matter.
Simply being accused of criminal conduct, for example, will get you suspended from many city jobs. Licenses, such as security guard licenses or TLC licenses are also often at risk as a result of mere accusation. If your ability to drive, your job, your ability to get student loans, and your status in this country are not important to you, then perhaps seeking advice from your own lawyer ought not be important to you. But the odds are these things are all important to you.
This is not to say that it is highly likely that all these terrible consequences will end up happening to you in your case. In fact, you are probably going to be just fine.
But the point is that with issues of this importance even potentially in play, it probably makes sense to bring in your own lawyer to be there at arraignment.
This is especially true if the odds are extremely high that a potentially favorable offer may be made to you that you may well WANT to accept. In many cases very favorable offers made at the arraignment are never offered again after arraignment.
Don't assume that bringing a private lawyer into the picture after arraignment will mean that you will necessarily be able to get the same offer from arraignments again. This is one of the most important reasons why you ought to have the lawyer you want with you there at arraignments.
Therefore, it makes sense to be prepared with your own lawyer, whose advice you trust, so that you can accept or reject the offer with the highest degree of confidence that what you are doing is the right thing for you, not just in the short term because it might get you out of jail, but also in the long term so that it has no lasting consequences to your life.
Having Your Own Lawyer at Arraignment for a Misdemeanor Is Affordable
Like any other job, the cost of a private lawyer for arraignments in New York City is related to the amount of work required.
If you are talking about a misdemeanor arraignment in NYC, then the odds are fairly high that an offer to resolve the matter will be made. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will even be able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy the likelihood of such an offer, along with a pretty good bet on the precise nature of the offer. If this sort of settlement is acceptable, and if the settlement doesn't have any unexpected consequences, then the matter could very well be concluded at the arraignment.
That means that there isn't an enormous time element to the representation. That means the cost to you is going to be quite affordable.
Realize that different situations may result in variations in the fees. If the case is heard in night court or in weekend court, for example, the cost to have a lawyer at those hours or days may be enhanced over weekday court. Further, if the intention is not to resolve the case, but instead to take the case head on and go to trial because you feel like you did nothing wrong, then of course this will involve a considerably greater amount of time, and therefore a greater cost.
But if your goal is to resolve it (as long as by resolving it you do not cause yourself even greater potentially long term difficulties) then bringing your own lawyer in to get the advice you need from the lawyer of your choice ought to be affordable and worth every penny.
REASON TWO - You may find yourself in front of the judge sooner with a private lawyer
It is true that if you have a private lawyer, it is quite possible you will find your way in front of the judge sooner than if you had "let" Legal Aid do it.
The reason for this is NOT because private lawyers have some sort of magic touch or because the criminal justice system has a special place in its heart for private criminal defense lawyers.
The reason for this is far more practical. It is simply a function of the way arraignments happen in court. The paperwork for arraignments is completed in batches called "runs". A "run" of cases might include anywhere from 10 - 25 cases or so depending on how busy it is. When a run of cases is ready, it is brought over to the Legal Aid Society in a big stack so that the Legal Aid Society clerks can enter the information in their database and prepare their own files. This will take time.
Once this is done, the Legal Aid lawyers working the arraignment shift sort out who is going to take which cases, and then the Legal Aid Society lawyers must review each one of the five or six cases they have just taken. After reviewing the paperwork for each of their five or six cases, the legal Aid Society lawyers must then go into the back to interview all of the defendants on their cases. These interviews can be quite brief or quite long depending on the nature of the case and the needs of the particular client. After completing the interviews of his or her five or six new clients, the Legal Aid Society lawyer then hands up notices of appearance on each case in order to alert the court officer running the courtroom that he or she is ready for the cases to be called.
All of the above takes time, sometimes a lot of time. It can't be avoided because every step is critical. It is critical that the Legal Aid Society lawyers familiarize themselves with the accusations and the files of the people they are about to interview. It is critical that each of the five or six (or more) people who are accused be afforded a full opportunity to discuss their cases with the public defender so that the public defender can be in the best position to conduct the arraignment. If there are felony matters involved, each defendant must be advised of a variety of critical and subtle legal issues regarding the Grand Jury and negotiations. Each of the defendants likely has family in court who will need time to discuss the situation with the public defender before arraignment.
Compare the above situation with a private attorney walking into court working with one client waiting for arraignment.
Private attorney walks into courtroom probably before the paperwork is even ready because he or she has been in contact with the Court staff to monitor the case as it progresses through the system and can time his appearance in court. Private attorney speaks to his client and gathers sufficient information for the arraignment and answers all the client's questions. The family has already been consulted. The paperwork isn't ready yet, so this is time that would be spent waiting anyway.
Once the run is finished, the paperwork is brought into the court. The private lawyer's case is separated from the pile of cases and handed directly to the private lawyer. Private lawyer has already interviewed his client and is ready for arraignment. Private lawyer hands court officer his notice of appearance indicating that he is ready for arraignment. Court officer calls the private lawyer's case.
As you can see, the private lawyer has eliminated the amount of time that would have been spent waiting for the Legal Aid Society clerk to prepare the file, waiting for the Legal Aid Lawyers to distribute the files, waiting for the lawyers to review their files, waiting for the lawyers to interview ALL their clients and clients' families, and finally waiting for the case to be called in random order among the many clients being handled by the Legal Aid Society Lawyer.
The elimination of all these steps can be a considerable savings in time for someone in custody. In some cases, as toward the end of night court, this difference can make the difference between someone being seen toward the end of night court or being held over another night to the following day court session. This can suddenly transform a 24 hour bit of misery into a 36 hour nightmare.
Therefore, there is good reason to expect that having a private criminal defense lawyer will save a person some time in custody, in some cases considerable time in custody.
Again, this is not because of some magic powers of the private lawyer and not the result of some sort of system preference, but simply the result of the facts of life in the arrest to arraignment process. If the public defenders spent no time reviewing their files or talking to their clients or discussing things with family members, and if there were 20 public defenders working arraignments, there might be less of a difference. But this is not the way of the world. The public defenders typically send three or four lawyers to work arraignments in New York City. That means that each one will be busy throughout the shift. This is a fact of life.
When you are talking about sitting in a cage, it is my feeling that even a minute saved from being in a cage is worth a great deal. Therefore, even though a private attorney is not going to be able to magically turn a 24 hour process into a two hour process, there might well be room to shave a few hours off, or, in some cases (like getting someone in front of a judge at the end of night court) more than that.
That is certainly a benefit.
REASON THREE - Having Your Lawyer From the Start is Smart
Most criminal defense lawyers would agree that the sooner they get in the case the better they like it, because the more control they have over the way the case progresses. Arraignments may seem like a brief and insignificant appearance, but it is often a great place to learn about the case, formally, and informally.
Call a Lawyer. Get a Quote
If you know someone who has been arrested, even for a "minor" offense in New York City, call a criminal defense lawyer to see about helping him or her. It certainly can't hurt to get a quote. You might well find that the cost to bring in your own private criminal lawyer is more affordable than you imagine. If you appreciate the information I provided in this article, you can call Shalley and Murray and see about having an attorney from our firm help out. Call 718-268-2171 for your free consultation and quote.