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Background about Criminal Cases

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What is criminal court?

Criminal court is where you go when the government (state or municipality) believes you committed a crime and it files charges against you. Only the government — not another person or private agency — can charge you with a crime. In criminal court, you are presumed innocent until the prosecution proves you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Misdemeanor crimes are heard in the district court and felony crimes are heard in the superior court.

The District Attorney’s Office represents the State. In some cities, the city attorney prosecutes certain misdemeanors instead of the district attorney.

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What is the difference between criminal cases and civil cases?

A criminal case happens when the government files a case in court to charge someone (the defendant) with committing a crime. If the defendant is found guilty of a crime, he or she may have to go to prison and/or pay a fine or restitution.

A civil case happens when one person, business, or agency sues another one because of a dispute between them, often involving money. If someone loses a civil case, they may be ordered to pay the other side money or to give up property, but they will not go to jail just for losing the case.

There are other important differences:

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What kind of criminal cases are there?

There are 3 types of criminal cases:

Violations

A violation is a minor offense and includes a violation of a city ordinance or state law. Examples are most traffic violations and fish and game offenses. The punishment is usually a fine and there is no jail time.

Misdemeanors

A misdemeanor is a crime with a maximum punishment of up to 1 year in a jail, and/or a $25,000 fine. Misdemeanors are divided into class A or B, depending on the crime. An individual convicted of a class A misdemeanor could be sent to jail for up to 1 year and/or pay a fine up to $25,000. An individual convicted of a class B misdemeanor could be sent to jail for up to 90 days and/or pay a fine up to $2,000.

Examples of misdemeanors are:

Felonies

A felony is the most serious kind of crime. If found guilty, the defendant can be sent to prison for a year or more and pay fines up to $500,000, depending on the type of crime.

There are 4 categories of felony crimes:

Examples of felonies are:

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Who are the people involved in criminal cases?

There are several people who have different roles in a criminal case:

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How does a case start?

  1. Investigation: Many cases start with the police investigating a reported crime. The police may interview the victim or witness and look for evidence at the crime scene. For complicated crimes, the investigation can take a long time.
  2. Arrest: The police arrest the person believed to have committed the crime. This is also called taking the person into custody and the person cannot leave. The officer can arrest the person without a warrant if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person committed a felony. If the crime was a misdemeanor, the officer can arrest the person without a warrant if the officer sees the person committing the crime, or in some domestic violence or drunk driving cases.
  3. Citation or Summons: Some cases start without an arrest. A police officer can give a citation like a traffic ticket that requires the person to go to court on a specific day. The court can also send the person a summons that states a specific day to come to court.
  4. Booking: After arrest, the police can take the person to a police station or jail for booking. The person has the right to call a lawyer. The police or jail official will fingerprint and photograph the person and write down the charges against him or her. For less serious offenses, the person often can pay bail right away and get out of jail. If the person stays in jail, the staff will search for weapons or drugs, take their personal items to keep safe, and deal with any medical issues. Police may ask to talk to the person, for drug and alcohol tests, or for permission to search their house or car. The person may also go before a magistrate judge immediately for a bail hearing.
  5. Police report: The police will write a report about the crime for the prosecutor. This report summarizes the events leading up to the arrest or citation and provides witnesses’ names and other relevant information. The prosecutor then decides whether to file charges and, if so, what charges to file.
  6. Complaint or Information: If the prosecutor decides to file charges in court, the name of the document depends on the type of crime. For misdemeanors and some felonies, the document is called a "criminal complaint" or "information" and it says the person committed a specific crime. It includes "counts" which describe each violation of separate laws. "Indictment" issued by a grand jury is the document for other felonies. The person becomes known as a "defendant" when the case is filed in court.

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Do you have the right to a lawyer in a criminal case?

If you cannot afford your own lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer for you, often a public defender. Make sure you tell the judge the first time you go to court that you cannot afford a lawyer. The court determines eligibility by comparing the defendant’s financial resources to his or her expenses. The expenses include housing, utilities, food, health care, child care, insurance, one vehicle, minimum loan and credit card payments, and child support.

The court appoints an attorney without asking more questions if it finds:

For a defendant who does not meet the above criteria and wants a public defender, the court:

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How do I get a court-appointed lawyer?

If you are charged with a criminal offense and cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you are entitled to a court-appointed attorney. Learn more about getting a court-appointed lawyer. You can file:

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What If the judge denies my request for a court-appointed lawyer?

Within 3 days of the trial court’s decision denying a court-appointed lawyer, you may ask the presiding judge to review the trial judge's decision by filing:

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Will I have to pay anything for a court-appointed lawyer?

If you are not convicted, you usually will not have to pay for a court-appointed lawyer.

If you are convicted, the court will enter a judgment against you to pay for part of the cost of your appointed lawyer. The amount you must pay will be based on the offense you are convicted of committing as set out in the table below. In unusual circumstances, you could be required to pay more or less than the amount below. These amounts are much less than you would have to pay for a private attorney.

Stage At Which The Case Ends Offense of Which Defendant is Convicted
Misdemeanor Class B or C Felony Class A or Unclassified Felony Murder in the 1st or 2nd Degree
Trial 500 1,500 2,500 5,000
Misdemeanor change of plea 200
Felony change of plea after substantive motion work and hearing but before trial begins 1,000 1,500 2,500
Felony change of plea after indictment but before substantive motion work and hearing 500 1,000 2,000
Felony change of plea before indictment 250 500 750
Post-conviction relief or probation revocation proceeding in trial court 250 250 500 750

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What if I don't want a lawyer?

You have the right to refuse a lawyer and represent yourself, but the court will consider carefully whether your decision is voluntary and intelligent and whether you have the ability to represent yourself. This means that nobody has forced you to make the decision and that you understand the consequences of not having a lawyer. If you are charged with a felony level offense, you must at least talk with a lawyer before deciding to represent yourself. You should think very carefully whether you want to represent yourself in a criminal matter because there may be very serious consequences if you are found guilty.

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Isn't there a right to a speedy trial?

Yes, the U.S. and Alaska Constitutions provide for the right to have a speedy trial. Alaska Criminal Rule 45 PDF requires a trial within 120 days from the date a charging document is served on a defendant, not including specific exceptions that are allowed to make that time period longer. However, there can be practical and strategic reasons for a criminal case to take a long time to resolve, including the need for a defendant to have enough time to plan a defense and both sides to ask the judge to decide certain things before the trial.

The defendant can give up or waive the right to a speedy trial. It is very important that a defendant gets advice from a lawyer before making this decision.

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Why do some cases take years to resolve?

It varies based on the specifics of each case. Defendants in felony cases often file motions to dismiss their indictments, arguing that the evidence presented to the grand jury would not result in a conviction even if it is all true. Lawyers may need more time on discovering the evidence and may file motions about discovery. Defendants also file motions to suppress (not allow) some or all of the prosecution’s evidence, arguing that the state broke laws in getting its evidence. The judge needs time to decide motions and sometimes can only do so after holding an evidentiary hearing or oral argument. If the judge dismisses charges because of an error that can be corrected, the prosecutor may file the charges again. Some defendants decide that filing a motion to suppress or dismiss is worth some delay because winning the motion could result in dropping the entire case or reaching a favorable plea deal.

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Rev. 18 April 2019
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