Why should I hire an attorney?
An attorney can do many things for you that you may have no idea you need at this point in time. The attorney you choose should verify that the police, district attorney's office, and anyone else involved in your case did their work without violating your rights, even unintentionally. In addition, your attorney can ensure that State is able to prove the case against you with the evidence they have. Change is inevitable, and sometimes that can work in your favor. Your attorney can maximize this fact of life for you. Something could have changed making your case difficult or impossible for the State to prove the case against you.
Most practically, your attorney should know what is going on or find out immediately. The court process can be a confusing and difficult one, especially if you have never done anything like it before. If you choose the right attorney, she (or he) will make sure that you are as comfortable as possible during every stage of the process. Your attorney will make sure you know what is happening, what you should be doing, and what the next important event will be. Your attorney should always answer any and all questions you may have and end your conversations with the question, “Do you have any more questions for me?” Your attorney will represent your interests and speak on your behalf to the judge and prosecutors.
What happens at each of the different court settings?
At every setting except the last one, you check in with the bailiff of the court and talk to your attorney if you have hired one. Your attorney talks with the prosecutors. You make an appointment to come back.
Your initial court date is called a first appearance. At this court date, you will check in with the bailiff of the court. He will ask if you have hired an attorney or not. If you have not hired an attorney, the bailiff will ask if you want a court appointed attorney. If you say yes, you will be required to fill out an indigency affidavit. You will only be appointed an attorney if you are indigent. The indigency guidelines in Collin County require that your income does not exceed 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. A court appointed attorney is not necessarily a free attorney. If you are found guilty, your court appointed attorney's fees will be rolled into your court costs.
If you have hired an attorney, they will meet with the prosecutors and begin figuring out what evidence the State has against you. They may get the State's offer, as well. The State's offer is the punishment the State is willing to agree to in exchange for your guilty plea. This is usually negotiable, and the back and forth discussion between your attorney and the State is called plea negotiations. What is said during the process of plea negotiations is generally privileged to encourage the process. Your attorney is required by ethics rules to communicate any offer the State makes to you. The fact that your attorney tells you what the State's offer is does not mean they think you should accept the offer or plead guilty.
Whether to plead guilty or not is a decision that only you can make.
After your first appearance you may have at least one setting called announcement. The purpose of the setting is to announce to the court whether you intend to plead guilty or not. Many times, the discovery and plea negotiations processes take longer than one setting, so the court may grant some leeway and extend another announcement setting so that you and your attorney have enough time to review the evidence against you and the State's offer before you decide how you will plea.
If you decide you want to accept the State's plea bargain offer, you will waive your rights to trial and indicate your agreement by signing papers called the plea packet. Your attorney will explain all of this to you when the time comes. You have a right to a jury trial. You have a right to testify or not as you choose. You have a right to cross-examine the witnesses against you and call witnesses on your own behalf. You have a right to force the State to prove the allegations against you beyond a reasonable doubt. When you accept a plea offer, you waive all of these rights. Your plea of guilty alone is enough to find you guilty and substantiate your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Time, Probation, Deferred Adjudication
Depending on the severity of the crime alleged, your criminal history, and other factors, the State's offer could fall into one of three categories.
Time is where you go to jail, the State Jail Facility, or the Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Institutional Division and stay until your sentence is over.
Probation is when your sentence is suspended and you are placed on community supervision for a period of time. You stay out of jail and are required to meet with a probation officer, usually once per month. You will be required to attend classes and perform community service as well as pay a fine.
Deferred Adjudication is a special kind of Probation. If you successfully complete all conditions of your deferred adjudication probation, when your probationary period is over, the case against you will be dismissed. You will never be convicted. After this occurs, you may be able to get your case Nondisclosed. You will not be eligible for Expunction.
If you fail to successfully complete your deferred adjudication probation, the judge can find you guilty (convict you) and punish you anywhere within the entire range.
If you decide you do not want to accept the State's plea offer, you have a few choices. If the State will agree, you can plea open to the judge. That means that you plea guilty without the benefit of a plea bargain agreement. When you do this, whatever the judge finds appropriate will be your punishment.
You can also plead not guilty and take your case to trial. You can try your case to the judge or a jury. *The State has a right to a trial by jury, so they must agree in order for the case to be tried to the judge.* Even if you have a jury trial, you still have the right to choose whether the judge or jury will set your punishment in the event you are convicted. Many considerations go into making this decision. It is important that your attorney be familiar with Texas Criminal Law and the reputations of the different judges so that the best choice can be made.
If you are found not guilty or your case is dismissed based on a finding of no probable cause, you are eligible for an expunction. Expunction is a process that clears your record and is not automatic.