When a person commits a crime in New Hampshire, they will be subject to prosecution under the state's criminal justice system. The criminal justice process can be a confusing and hostile place for defendants, especially for defendants who have not yet found an attorney. The court system can be very confusing, and a majority of defendants have little to no prior experience with criminal charges or interactions with the court.
The criminal process begins with the arrest. If an officer has witnessed a crime being committed, has a warrant for a person's arrest, or has enough probable cause to make an arrest, he or she will likely bring in the suspect. As soon as a person is arrested, it is likely that the officer already has charges in mind to recommend to the prosecutor. The prosecutor ultimately decides whether or not criminal charges should be pursued at all, and which charges to bring against a defendant.
Defendants may sometimes be held in a local jail or at the police station if they are believed to be a threat to the community, or if they present a risk of fleeing the area. If the defendant wishes to be permitted to leave jail, they must first have a friend or relative post bail for them. Bail is a form of collateral paid to the state in exchange for a defendant's release from jail to await trial and other criminal proceedings. Typically hearings for bail are scheduled within 48 hours of a defendant's arrest, provided there are no weekends or holidays in between. It is important to remember that bail amount is typically at the discretion of a judge, and it is also up to the judge whether to offer bail or not.
For crimes at the misdemeanor level, there will be an arraignment hearing. The judge will inform the defendant of the charges against them, and the defendant may enter a plea of either "guilty" or "not guilty" with the court. Typically this is done with the presence of an attorney, however, defendants may enter a "not guilty" plea a new court date will be entered for the defendant, and they will be permitted time to seek an attorney, or seek the services of a court-appointed public defender.
Crimes at the felony level will have an extra step known as a preliminary hearing or probable cause hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether there is sufficient cause for the state to pursue higher level felony charges against the defendant, and what charges, if necessary, should be presented against the defendant. Following this hearing, the defendant will have a felony arraignment where they will be permitted to enter a plea.
It is inadvisable to simply enter a plea of guilty without seeking the services of an attorney. Many times, defendants entering guilty pleas without understanding what the full consequences are find themselves facing unforeseen jail time or very hefty fines or additional action from the NH DMV. A guilty plea should be done only under the guidance and counsel of a criminal defense attorney.
Plea bargaining is the process by which a defendant and their attorney negotiate with the prosecutor to work out different charges. The overall goal is to reduce trial volume, and to have the defendant accept a guilty plea for lesser charges in exchange for reduced sentencing. At times, plea bargaining can result in dropped charges if negotiations have gone on at length, or if the defendant's attorney is able to eliminate certain pieces of evidence through motions for suppression. Plea bargaining is typically done through a number of court dates following the arraignment. An experienced attorney will be able to negotiate with a prosecutor for a favorable bargain, or perhaps even a dismissal of certain charges. If a prosecutor is unwilling to negotiate, or does not offer any favorable options, the matter may be directed towards a trial.
Trials can come in the form of a bench trial or a jury trial. Bench trials are both heard and decided by a judge, while a jury trial is heard by a judge, but the verdict is decided by a jury. Many crimes that occur within a municipal court are resolved through either plea bargaining or a bench trial. If a crime is to be heard in the county or state's Superior Court, the trial may be either a bench trial or a jury trial. A trial typically consists of opening statements from both sides, a period of evidence presentation from both sides, and finally closing arguments from both sides. Following this, the jury or judge will deliberate and make a decision on the verdict. If a defendant is found "guilty" then the next step will determining sentencing. For misdemeanor level crimes, a brief sentencing hearing may immediately follow the determination of a guilty verdict. For felony crimes, the sentencing hearing is typically scheduled for a later date. At a sentencing hearing the defendant and their counsel will be able to address the court with regards to how the judge or jury should determine their sentencing, likewise, the victim or victim's family will also be able to address the court on matters of sentencing as well.
The Importance of Legal Counsel
It cannot be stressed enough that anyone facing criminal charges should seek out the legal counsel of an experienced attorney. New Hampshire's criminal justice process can be hostile towards defendants, and incredibly intimidating for anyone who has not been familiarized with the in's and out's of the courts. A criminal defense attorney will not only be able to ease the worried mind of a defendant, but can also significantly increase their chances of a better plea bargain or a favorable trial outcome.
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