The law is complex. That should go without saying. After all, that’s why I have a job, and why it is so essential to hire an attorney who has not only studied the law but who has practiced it. But it is helpful for both my clients and the general population to have a better understanding of legal concepts. I’m sure you’ve heard these terms: arraignment, reasonable suspicion, probable cause, circumstantial evidence, entrapment, attorney-client privilege, nolo contendere, and discovery. But what do they mean?
Sometimes even the media misunderstands these things or fails to explain them in a way that makes sense to people who haven’t practiced law for years. It’s not their fault. Some of these concepts (hearsay, anyone?) are literally tested on the bar exam after future lawyers study them for three years in law school. This is because they are challenging to understand but also essential for the practice of law.
Fortunately, here I am: your friendly neighborhood criminal defense attorney to the rescue! In this blog series, I’ll walk through some frequently-misunderstood legal concepts and (hopefully) explain them in a way that is accessible to everyone.
Once you’ve read this blog series, you’ll be able to point out all of the errors the next time you watch a courtroom scene in a movie or the next episode of Law and Order. Your friends and family will love it! Yes, that was sarcasm. But seriously, it’s not just for show. People who understand this stuff make better jurors, better voters, and better citizens, and can interact in a more informed way with the justice system.
Feel free to reach out with questions, or if there are other concepts that you’d like me to explain.
Arraignment is just one of the many court appearances a person makes during a lengthy criminal case. At arraignment, which occurs very early in the process, the judge reads the defendant’s charges to them as written in the charging document.
Arraignment is an archaic proceeding, a holdover from a time when many people were illiterate. Now, most people can read, and many people hire lawyers to help them understand their charges. But arraignment still remains a part of the legal process.
Why do I say that arraignment is a commonly-misunderstood legal term? Well, there’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed in high-profile cases where a person’s guilt is beyond question (at least in the court of popular opinion). The media will report that a person pleaded “not guilty” at arraignment, causing public uproar. Much of the public outrage boils down to people wondering: “how dare this person plead not guilty when they so obviously committed the crime?”
This public outrage tells me that people don’t understand what “arraignment” means in the context of a whole criminal case.
Under the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, every defendant has the right to an attorney. Yes, that includes defendants accused of terrible crimes, because every defendant is presumed innocent until their guilt is proven. Once retained or appointed, the attorney must zealously advocate for the client. To effectively advocate for their clients, lawyers must understand not only the law, but also the facts of the case.
At arraignment, the defense often does not have all the facts. They probably do not have discovery (evidence that the State is legally required to turn over to the defense). They likely haven’t had time to investigate the case or formulate a strategy for the case. For this reason, it would be highly irresponsible for a lawyer to advise their client to plead guilty at arraignment, especially in serious cases.
There are, of course, some exceptions to this. Sometimes clients contact me on less serious matters, like minor traffic tickets. They know they want to plead guilty and mostly want a lawyer to mitigate the consequences of a conviction. In those cases, I am much more open to a person pleading out at arraignment so long as I have sufficient time to speak to the prosecutor and negotiate a good outcome before court.
In conclusion, the next time you’re watching the news and they report that a person pleaded “not guilty” at arraignment, don’t get mad. Be happy that the defendant has a lawyer and that the lawyer wants to defend their client. Our justice system is far from perfect, but the 6th Amendment right to counsel is crucial to ensuring that justice is done for all of us.
This is one I run into a lot in my practice. It’s especially relevant for traffic matters. In some ways, it’s a pretty straightforward concept. But sometimes there are quirks that you should be aware of. An attorney can help you understand how a nolo plea could work in your particular case.
So what does nolo contendere mean? It translates to “no contest.” Basically, by entering a plea of nolo, you are saying that you neither accept nor deny responsibility for the offense, but you agree to accept the punishment.
If you are being punished anyway, what’s the benefit of a nolo plea? For many kinds of offenses, pleading nolo can mitigate some of the collateral consequences of a conviction.
What are collateral consequences? Collateral consequences are consequences not necessarily imposed by the criminal court but can still result from a conviction. For instance, points on your license, or even a license suspension, are collateral consequences of a conviction. Other collateral consequences include increased insurance premiums and immigration consequences, among others.
When you plead nolo to a traffic offense, the court will submit a record of the plea to the Department of Driver Services. For regular (non-nolo) pleas, DDS then assesses points to the defendant’s driving history. If you plead nolo, however, DDS will not assess points.
The Georgia Department of Driver Services will accept one (1) plea of nolo contendere every five (5) years. A subsequent nolo plea for any offense within a five-year period will count as a conviction and will not prevent points from being assessed.
It is important to note that a nolo plea will not help everyone. For certain offenses, DDS will not accept a nolo plea at all. Some examples are fleeing/eluding law enforcement, hit and run, and vehicular homicide.
Nolo will not help drivers under 21, either. Drivers Under 21 are subject to stricter rules than older drivers, and nolo pleas count as convictions for them. Thus, a nolo plea will not save them from a license suspension. If you are under 21, your best bet is to hire a Georgia Traffic Court Attorney who can help you get the charge reduced or dismissed.
In conclusion, a nolo plea can be incredibly helpful for some individuals. It can prevent points on your record or even a license suspension. But it isn’t a silver bullet.
There are a lot more misunderstood legal terms and concepts out there – after all, this was just Part 1! So stay tuned for a continuation of this series. If you have questions about these or other legal terminology, or if there’s a topic you think I should cover in a future blog post, get in touch today!