In California, there are thousands of pages of statutes within the penal code. Each of these statutes covers a different form of criminal activity. From murder to minor property damage, there are too many potential crimes to count. One important thing each of these offenses has in common, however, is this: a defendant can beat a criminal charge at trial under the right circumstances.
Winning your criminal case in Los Angeles starts with developing a strong defense.
What is a criminal defense? It is the legal theory a defendant and their attorney build their case around. There are many potential defenses depending on the charges you face; some could apply to any charge while others are specific to one criminal offense.
Attorney Vivian has spent her career identifying the strongest defenses available to her clients. To discuss your possible defense after an arrest, contact the Law Offices of Vivian N. Szawarc
COMMON DEFENSES IN A CALIFORNIA CRIMINAL TRIAL
While it is impossible to list every potential defense in a criminal trial, consider some of the most common defenses below.
LACK OF EVIDENCE
Arguably the most important thing a defense attorney could do for their client is to hold the state to its burden of proof. Prosecutors will often attempt to reframe a trial as a referendum on the defendant's character. It is not the defendant that has the burden of proving what happened. It is the prosecutor that must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is guilty and failing to do so results in an acquittal.
This defense requires more from an attorney than passively hoping the jury does not see enough evidence to merit a conviction. A defense attorney typically must take active steps to poke holes in the state's theory. This does not mean they must offer an alternative suspect or theory. Instead, the defense rests on the idea that the evidence offered by the state is not enough to merit a conviction, regardless of what the defendant's testimony might be.
This defense typically does not require a defendant to testify. Because the prosecutor's burden of proof is required in every criminal case, this defense is commonly used (and should be used).
It is one thing to argue that the state has failed to prove you are guilty. It is another thing entirely to claim that you are actually innocent of the charges against you. In some cases, this simple defense gives you the best chance for an acquittal. There are many times when simply claiming innocence is not enough at trial. In some cases, making the forceful case that you have done nothing wrong is persuasive.
It is not uncommon for defendants to take the stand in their own defense when relying on actual innocence. This makes sense, as a jury will want to hear the defendant's story from their own mouth. This defense could occur in virtually any criminal case
AUTHORIZATION OR CONSENT
The defense of authorization or consent could apply in certain criminal cases. These defenses only apply in criminal offenses that involve an act that happens against another person's will or without their approval. This defense would not apply to an act that is criminal regardless of the victim's consent, including murder or statutory rape.
There are two broad categories of offenses where this defense applies. The first is sex crimes, including rape. Whether or not the victim consented to the sexual act in question is central to these offenses. If a defense attorney can show that an act was consensual, these charges would be unwarranted.
The second type of crime that involves this defense is financial crimes like fraud. Many cases of fraud involve the unauthorized use of credit cards, checking accounts, or even motor vehicles. If you can show you were authorized to take the actions you did, it could result in your acquittal at trial.
The degree that the police are responsible for investigating the charges against you can vary. Criminal offenses like driving under the influence are typically initiated through a traffic stop. Drug crimes routinely involve the search of your home, car, or person. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides strict limitations on how the police may carry out these searches and seizures.
There are two broad legal concepts that apply to most actions the police may take. Law enforcement needs reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime to stop your car and investigate. An even higher standard applies if they want to search you or arrest you without a warrant. This higher standard is known as probable cause. If the police are unable to articulate reasonable suspicion or probable cause, the court could rule that those searches, seizures, or traffic stops are illegal.
This is important, because the state may not use any evidence collected due to an unlawful search or seizure. If your attorney determines the police searched you illegally, they could file a motion with a court to exclude all of the evidence resulting from the unlawful search.
Despite the common appearance of this defense on television courtroom dramas, the insanity defense is rarely used in real life. However, there are certain circumstances where it could be appropriate. There are three important reasons why this defense often works against the defendant. First, it is an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is one that the defendant must prove. In most cases, the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant is guilty, but with an affirmative defense the burden shifts.
The second issue is that the insanity defense involves admitting guilt but blaming the defendant's insanity for committing the crime. This is problematic if the jury does not buy the affirmative defense, given the defendant has admitted to the other elements of the crime.
Finally, the outcome of a successful insanity defense is not ideal in most cases. Unlike other defenses, an insanity defense could see the defendant institutionalized if is successful.
The defense of duress involves committing a criminal act due to threats of force or violence from another person. In other words, you are not criminally liable if you are forced to commit a crime. While duress typically involves threats of violence, it could also involve the threat of exposing embarrassing personal information or causing financial harm. This defense could be viable when the threats are leveled at the defendant or at a loved one. Duress is possible under any crime in theory, but it is most commonly used in cases of white-collar crimes.
SELF-DEFENSE OR DEFENSE OF OTHERS
Defending yourself from a violent attack is one of the most common defenses involving any violent crime, including assault or murder. While harming another person is typically unlawful, you are under no obligation to allow the same harm to come to you. You are allowed to defend yourself when threatened with violence or when you are attacked, although your belief that you are in danger must be reasonable. Your response must also be proportional; as you cannot commit murder in response to being slapped or spit on.
The same rules regarding self-defense also apply to the defense of another person. If your friend, family member, or even stranger is in imminent threat of harm, you are entitled to defend them as you would yourself. You also have the right to defend your personal property. You may only use as much force as necessary to deter the perpetrator, and you may never use deadly force in the defense of your property.
Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes, people make mistakes that result in criminal charges. In some cases, the fact that a mistake occurred could be enough to beat those charges at trial. The defense of mistake is especially common with white-collar crimes or theft. This defense is the strongest with offenses that require knowing intent. For example, a person carrying a suitcase that is unaware it has illegal drugs hidden in it could not knowingly be trafficking in a controlled substance. Likewise, a person who has permission to use their parent's vehicle but accidentally climbs into their neighbor's car instead lacks the intent to commit theft. Mistake defenses can be difficult to prove, as there is often no easy way to establish what your intentions are.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
The statute of limitations is a powerful defense that could apply in any criminal case. The statute of limitations is the deadline in which the state must file criminal charges. Should the prosecutor let that deadline expire, they are powerless to ever file that particular criminal charge.
The statute of limitations is different depending on the crime. For traffic violations and minor offenses, it can be as short as one year. On the other end of the spectrum, serious crimes like murder have no statute of limitations. That means the state could bring murder charges decades after the killing occurs. The courts have a little leeway with the statute of limitations, which is one reason why it is such a potent defense. Because of these, most prosecutors are keenly aware of when the deadline expires. While violations of the statute of limitations do occur, they are not common.
The right to a speedy trial operates in a similar manner as the statute of limitations. Not only are you entitled to be charged with certain crimes in a reasonable amount of time, but you also have the right to face trial without long, unnecessary delays. This is thanks to the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Typically, a delay of more than one year is enough to trigger a speedy trial violation. That said, the judge in the case has the power to pause speedy trial under certain circumstances. If the delay is unavoidable or caused by the defendant, the speedy trial clock will stop running until the next court date. Just like with the statute of limitations, a speedy trial defense could be available for any criminal charge.
TYPICAL DEFENSE STRATEGIES
There are many ways to approach defending a criminal charge, regardless of the specific defense used. Most of these tactics occur before a trial takes place. Understanding these tactical decisions could make or break your criminal case. Attorney Vivian has used many tactics throughout her career, including:
- Plea Bargains. It is not uncommon for a criminal case to result in a plea agreement. These plea agreements could involve reduced charges, and in some cases, it is unnecessary to plead guilty at all. A plea is negotiated between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. While these often provide a defendant with a favorable outcome to their case, some situations make more sense to take a case to trial. Always consult an attorney before negotiating a plea bargain.
- Motions to Dismiss. Some prosecutions are fatally flawed due to legal technicalities or procedural violations. When the law prevents a case from moving forward, your attorney could file a motion to dismiss the case entirely. A motion to dismiss could be appropriate when the statute of limitations has expired or when the speedy trial clock has run out.
- Motions in Limine. Another pretrial motion is known as the motion in limine. This motion does not seek the dismissal of a case, but instead, it asks the court to block the prosecution from using certain evidence at trial. This motion is appropriate when the police have violated your Fourth Amendment rights.