IF YOU ARE CHARGED WITH A MISDEMEANOR
A “misdemeanor” means a minor crime which usually involves a maximum sentence of a year or two. Examples of misdemeanors in Maryland are theft under $500 (a typical shoplifting case), 2nd degree assault (usually not involving a weapon), and possession of marijuana or cocaine. Other examples include bad checks, employee theft or embezzlement, stealing and domestic violence. These cases are handled in the District Court. Trials in the District Court are typically scheduled a month or two after the person has been arrested.
Felonies are serious crimes that usually involve potential sentences of many years in prison. Typical examples of felonies are robbery, assault involving a gun or a knife, and selling or distribution of illegal drugs. These cases are handled in the local Circuit Court and are set for trial in 3-6 months.
WHAT A LAWYER CAN DO FOR YOU
You have a right to learn from the police or prosecutor at least some of the evidence against you. This includes any statements which the police claim you made concerning your involvement in the alleged crime. Further, your attorney should be able to obtain copies of police reports, witness lists and other documents which the prosecutor believes support the case against you.
The attorney should interview you in detail about what happened. Sometimes the police arrest an individual by mistake who had nothing to do with the crime with which he is charged. Other times, the issue is whether what happened is indeed a crime committed by you. People accused of crimes may appear to have broken the law when in fact they have not. Self defense is a good example. (In general, a person has a right to protect himself by using force when threatened by someone else.) The lawyer will attempt to gather as much information from you in terms of what happened and who your witnesses might be.
The attorney should review the information obtained from the prosecutor in combination with the information he receives from you. He will then make a determination as whether a judge or a jury is likely to find you guilty. (Under the law, a person is required to be found not guilty unless the evidence of his guilt is "beyond a reasonable doubt".)
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU "KNOW" YOU'RE GUILTY?
Really, that’s the wrong question. You have the right to require the prosecutor to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if you are "guilty", that does not mean that the evidence against you will prove your guilt.
WHAT HAPPENS IF EVIDENCE OF YOUR GUILT IS LACKING?
If the evidence of your guilt is weak or, regardless of the evidence, you believe you are not guilty, usually the lawyer will recommend that you go to trial.
WHAT HAPPENS AT TRIAL
In the District Court, the trial is before a judge only. The prosecution goes first. Witnesses and documentary evidence against you are presented to the judge. Your attorney has the right to question ("cross examine") those witnesses as well as challenge any evidence which the prosecutor attempts to use against you. Next, it is the defense's turn to put on its case. This might involve witnesses as well as your testimony. After each side is given the opportunity to argue whether you are guilty or not guilty, the judge announces the verdict.
JURY TRIAL RIGHTS
If you are charged with a felony, you have the right to a jury trial which means that 12 members of the community will decide after having heard the evidence from both sides whether you are guilty or not. The vote must be unanimous.
IS A TRIAL BEST FOR ME?
If the evidence against you is strong, you may wish to enter a plea of guilty and not have a trial. The role of your attorney in that situation will be to attempt to negotiate the best possible deal for you ("plea bargain"). Such an agreement may result in the dismissal of certain charges as well as a recommendation to the judge by the prosecutor that you receive a lenient sentence. Sometimes it is possible to guarantee that the judge will not impose a “stiff” sentence.
If you either enter a plea of guilty or are found guilty after trial, you are entitled to a sentencing hearing. The attorney, as part of his representation of you, will obtain as much favorable information as possible concerning your background and activities to persuade the judge to “go easy”. The judge's sentence might include some jail time (but certainly not always) and/or probation. It is also possible in certain cases to keep an individual's criminal record clean even if that person has been found guilty of a crime.