"How Does This End?"
Answers from a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Houston
At many initial client meetings, I ask my client, "What do you want to happen with your case?"
This may seem like a simple answer in the context of a criminal case as some may reply "I want to get off! What do you think I want?" But what does "get off" mean? A not guilty? A dismissal? A reduction to a lesser offense? No jail time? Like beauty, "getting off" may be in the eye of the beholder, and if you don't know how you want things to end, you don't know where to begin.
Ultimately, what matters is what it means to the accused. It's their life; it's their case, but they may not know.
The Possible Outcomes of a Criminal Case
Being charged with a crime is a stressful experience largely because of the uncertainty of the outcome. While it is impossible to tell someone how something will turn out and improper to promise a particular result, the following are possible outcomes of most adult criminal prosecutions in Texas state courts after charges have been filed:
The government files a motion to dismiss the charges which must be approved by the Court. Depending on the reason, it may or may not be with prejudice against re-filing within the statute of limitations (however an expunction may not be available where the Defendant entered a plea of guilty/nolo contendere, or was convicted to another charge arising from the same episode). Some local prosecutors' offices have been known to agree to dismiss charges in appropriate (and rare) cases after the Defendant has completed a program or counseling relevant to the facts. However, a prosecutor is prohibited by statute from dismissing a family violence case on account of civil proceedings.
No Bill by a Grand Jury
If a grand jury, typically reviewing a felony case (misdemeanors are rarely presented to grand juries), determines that there is no probable cause to indict, the Defendant is discharged. However, another grand jury may return an indictment prior to the expiration of the statutes of limitations.
Acquittal (Verdict of Not Guilty)
A verdict of not-guilty at trial discharges the Defendant at once “from all further liability upon the charge for which he was tried.” Acquittals may be expunged.
This is a term that is often inclusive of programs authorized and regulated by various statutes including Government Code Section 76.011 and Article 102.012 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. As a practical matter, they are similar to Community Supervision from the Defendant’s experience – however the key difference is that the terms are typically governed by a written contract with the prosecutor’s office and, if the case is dismissed, often subject to expunction. The potential availability of an expunction makes this an attractive option.
A plea agreement for punishment is pursuant to a conviction after a trial of a lesser offense.
Plea Agreement With Prosecution
The vast majority of criminal cases are disposed of in this manner. The prosecutor and the Defendant, usually through counsel, negotiate and agree upon a disposition of the case. In this scenario, the Defendant enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere (“no contest’) in exchange for a specified punishment. This may involve jail time, a fine, community supervision (Deferred Adjudication or “Straight Probation”), a reduction in charges, or a combination of these. The plea agreement is presented to the Court, who must approve it. If the Court does not approve the agreement, the Defendant may withdraw his or her plea. If the Court follows it, the Defendant would require the Court’s permission to appeal, which typically will not be given.
Plea Without an Agreed Recommendation
The Defendant enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendre to the Court with no agreement with the prosecutor regarding punishment. The judge has the full range of punishment for the offense available including Community Supervision, if allowed by statute. Judges often order a Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI) to be completed by the county’s Community Supervision & Corrections Department. At the sentencing hearing both the state and the defense may present evidence, including witnesses. A Defendant may also plead guilty or nolo contendere to a jury, in which case a trial is held on the issue of punishment.
Whether the result of a guilty or nolo contendere (“no contest’) plea or a guilty verdict after a trial, a Defendant may be convicted of the offense with which he is charged or a lesser included offense (see above). A conviction may result in the penalties for that level and type of offense allowed by law; however deferred adjudication is not available after a Defendant has been convicted.
Criminal Defense Outcomes
No Alternative Dispute Resolution
This is a fundamental difference from civil cases. The plaintiff in a criminal proceeding is the State of Texas, not the victim. Occasionally, a defendant will inquire about mediation, arbitration, or other similar procedure. In Texas, this almost never occurs in criminal prosecutions. In fact, a Court is specifically prohibited by statute from referring or ordering the Defendant or the victim in a family violence prosecution to alternative dispute resolution.
If no dismissal motion is made or consented to by the Court, no plea agreement is reached, and the defendant pleads not guilty, a trial is held before a judge or jury. The Defendant and the State of Texas both have an absolute right to a jury trial on both guilt/innocence and punishment. Occasionally, the state may move to dismiss the charges during trial or the Defendant may change his or her plea to guilty or nolo contendere.
Nolo Contendere or No Contest Plea
By statute, “[a] plea of nolo contendere, the legal effect of which shall be the same as that of a plea of guilty, except that such plea may not be used against the defendant as an admission in any civil suit based upon or growing out of the act upon which the criminal prosecution is based.”
Suppression of Evidence
Generally, “[n]o evidence obtained by an officer or other person in violation of any provisions of the Constitution or laws of the State of Texas, or of the Constitution or laws of the United States of America, shall be admitted in evidence against the accused on the trial of any criminal case.” However, whether a Court grants an accused’s motion to suppress the evidence or a jury, properly instructed, will convict absence the evidence, is a different matter. Even if granted, a prosecution may proceed upon the remaining evidence. The State may choose to dismiss the charges or appeal the ruling. In appropriate circumstances, after suppressing the evidence, a Court may discharge the defendant or instruct the jury to return a not guilty verdict.
As per Chapter 12 of the Texas Penal Code, each level of offense carries its own range of punishment. These may include jail or prison time, fines, community supervision (probation) or a combination of all of them. There are also potentially unique terms and conditions of community supervision, if available. These will be discussed more thoroughly on a separate page.
Contact an Experienced Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer
Looking for an attorney for a criminal case? To discuss possible outcomes in your case, call my office to help you protect your freedom. My name is Tate Williams, and I am here to help you through this difficult time.