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How to Choose a Ciminal Defense Attorney

Often, when an individual needs a criminal defense attorney, they are nervous and overwhelmed at the prospect of the charges they are facing. Here are some tips to find the right attorney to fit your needs.

Do you need a criminal defense attorney? You will only need a criminal defense attorney if you’ve been arrested or received a citation to appear in court to face misdemeanor or felony charges. Victims of domestic violence or sexual assault who do not want to testify can also seek the advice of a criminal defense attorney to protect their rights.

What type of attorney should I hire? If you are facing charges, you will want an attorney whose law practice is focused on criminal defense. Other attorneys may have criminal defense as a small part of their practice, but you want to ensure that your attorney has the experience and dedication to handle your case.

What is the most important quality to look for in an attorney? Trust. Trusting your attorney is essential. If you don’t trust your attorney, you are likely to be wary of their advice, right or wrong. In criminal defense, sometimes cases resolve with higher sentences for a defendant because they did not trust the advice of their attorney. It can also cost a client additional time and money to seek out the advice of a second attorney. Make sure you are comfortable with your attorney’s advice from the day you meet them.

What questions should you ask?  You should ask about your potential attorney’s experience with the charges you are facing. You want to ensure that your attorney has handled similar cases in the past and you need to be comfortable with their ability to handle your charges. You also want to discuss the fees and determine exactly what is included. A good criminal defense attorney should be able to spot the issues involved in your case during your first meeting and will tell you if they will need to file additional legal documents to reduce bail, suppress the evidence, get additional discovery, etc. Once the attorney spots the issues, they should be able to tell you what will be included in the fee so that later you are not paying unanticipated additional fees. If you are not comfortable about their conclusions, then re-read #3 above and move on to the next potential attorney. Finally, ask whether or not your attorney has conducted trials. The best way for an attorney to prove they are a strong advocate, is to show their skills in court. Attorneys who have gained the respect of prosecutors tend to achieve better results for their clients. You don’t want an attorney to use your case as a test of their skills – leave that for the next client.

Can I negotiate the fees? Yes, but there may not be much wiggle room. Attorney’s will generally calculate the time a case might take by a standard hourly rate that is based on their experience and needs at that time (which they may or may not share with you) to determine the fee. Be nice when you negotiate: it’s a well-known secret that attorneys quote a higher fee if they foresee difficulty.  Alternatively, if you are genuine and appear to be able to work with the attorney, rates can lower. Criminal defense attorneys are usually kind-hearted people who chose their field in order to help people. If you are kind and work well with them, they will work with you.

Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life

Jacob Sullum makes a strong case in Reason magazine against ridiculous Federal prosecutions of medical marijuana growers:

Chris Williams, a Montana medical marijuana grower, faces at least five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on February 1. The penalty seems unduly severe, especially because his business openly supplied marijuana to patients who were allowed to use it under state law.

Yet five years is a cakewalk compared to the sentence Williams originally faced, which would have kept the 38-year-old father behind bars for the rest of his life. The difference is due to an extremely unusual post-conviction agreement that highlights the enormous power prosecutors wield as a result of mandatory minimum sentences so grotesquely unjust that in this case even they had to admit it.

Of more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana providers who were arrested following federal raids in March 2011, Williams is the only one who insisted on his right to a trial. For that he paid a steep price.

Tom Daubert, one of Williams’ partners in Montana Cannabis, which had dispensaries in four cities, pleaded guilty to maintaining drug-involved premises and got five years of probation. Another partner, Chris Lindsey, took a similar deal and is expected to receive similar treatment. Both testified against Williams at his trial last September.

Williams’ third partner, Richard Flor, pleaded guilty to the same charge but did not testify against anyone. Flor, a sickly 68-year-old suffering from multiple ailments, died four months into a five-year prison term.

For a while it seemed that Williams, who rejected a plea deal because he did not think he had done anything wrong and because he wanted to challenge federal interference with Montana’s medical marijuana law, also was destined to die in prison. Since marijuana is prohibited for all purposes under federal law, he was not allowed even to discuss the nature of his business in front of the jury, so his conviction on the four drug charges he faced, two of which carried five-year mandatory minimums, was more or less inevitable.

Stretching Williams’ sentence from mindlessly harsh to mind-bogglingly draconian, each of those marijuana counts was tied to a charge of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor’s home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to run consecutively.

Consequently, when Williams was convicted on all eight counts, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 80 years for the gun charges alone, even though he never handled the firearms cited in his indictment, let alone hurt anyone with them. This result, which federal prosecutors easily could have avoided by bringing different charges, was so absurdly disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a deal.

Drop your appeal, Cotter said, and we’ll drop enough charges so that you might serve “as little as 10 years.” No dice, said Williams, still determined to challenge the Obama administration’s assault on medical marijuana providers. But when Cotter came back with a better offer, involving a five-year mandatory minimum, Williams took it, having recognized the toll his legal struggle was taking on his 16-year-old son, a freshman at Montana State University.

“I think everyone in the federal system realizes that these mandatory minimum sentences are unjust,” Williams tells me during a call from the Missoula County Detention Facility. But for prosecutors they serve an important function: “They were basically leveraging this really extreme sentence against something that was so light because they wanted to force me into taking a plea deal.” Nine out of 10 federal criminal cases end in guilty pleas.

The efficient transformation of defendants into prisoners cannot be the standard by which we assess our criminal justice system. If the possibility of sending someone like Chris Williams to prison for the rest of his life is so obviously unfair, why does the law allow it, let alone mandate it?

Of course, even the 5-year-sentence is insane and unfair.  It’s pathetic and sad to see so much government money going into this pointless prosecution and imprisonment in these times of supposed fiscal crisis.