What are my basic rights in the criminal justice system?
All those accused of a crime enjoy basic rights in the criminal justice system, including:
- The presumption of innocence. All defendants are presumed innocent unless and until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- A right to a speedy trial.
- The right against self-incrimination.
- The right to not testify in your own criminal case. Neither the prosecutor nor your attorney can force you to testify.
- And the right to confront your accusers. This means that your attorney can cross-examine any of the prosecutor’s witnesses including law enforcement, experts, and any alleged victim.
If I am arrested, do I have to talk to the police?
No. If you are arrested, you have the right to remain silent and are not obligated to respond to police questions.
What if I want to make a statement to the police?
If you choose to make a voluntary statement to the police, you may do so. Keep in mind that anything you say can be used against you in court. You also have the right to have an attorney present when you make a statement if you ask for one.
Can I hire a lawyer?
Yes. You can and should hire a lawyer.
What if I cannot afford to hire a lawyer?
If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will provide one for you. To apply for a court-appointed attorney, you may need certain documentation, including a pay stub, evidence of disability, proof of income, or proof you have visited several attorneys and have been unable to hire one.
What happens if I’m arrested?
You will generally have a hearing within 48 hours of arrest. At the hearing, you will be arraigned, which means you will be informed of the charges against you. You will enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If you plead guilty, the judge will sentence you according to your plea. The court may order a pre-sentence report or schedule a punishment hearing in which testimony from both sides would be allowed. If you plead not guilty, the judge will schedule your case for trial.
Will I have to stay in jail until my trial?
Not necessarily. A court may release you based on your agreement to show up for trial and comply with other conditions of release.
What is a plea bargain?
While your case is pending your attorney and the prosecutor may engage in plea negotiations, which would be agreed upon terms for punishment if you plead guilty or no contest. This means you would be agreeing to the terms the judge gives you with limited rights of appeal. This could be for probation or time in prison.
What happens if my case goes to trial?
Criminal trials in Texas proceed in two phases. The first phase is the guilt/innocence phase in which a prosecutor presents evidence and tries to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed a crime. As a defendant, you do not have to present any evidence, but you may do so if you choose. Your attorney may also cross-examine all of the prosecutor’s witnesses. Once each side has completed its presentation, a judge or jury determines whether the defendant is guilty or innocent.
If you are found innocent, you will be released without any further proceedings. If you are found guilty, your case enters the punishment phase. The court will follow a procedure similar to that of the guilt/innocence phase in order to determine punishment.
What is the potential punishment for sexual assault?
In Texas, sexual assault of an adult is a second-degree felony which carries a punishment of 2–20 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Is prison the only option for punishment in a sexual assault case?
Not usually. Probation is an option in some cases.
What are alternative punishment options to prison?
- Pre-Trial Diversion: Many counties in Texas have various types of pre-trial diversion programs. This usually includes the defendant signing a judicial confession admitting to guilt. Once admitted into the program the defendant is required to report as if on probation, pay a fee, attend classes, complete community service, and satisfy other requirements. Upon the defendant’s completion of the program, the case will be dismissed and no conviction will be listed on the defendant’s criminal record.
- Deferred Adjudication: Deferred adjudication is basically probation, but if the defendant successfully completes the deferred adjudication period, the case is dismissed and will not result in a conviction. If the defendant violates the terms of his or her deferred adjudication, participation in the program can be revoked, and the defendant can be sent to prison. This would result in a final conviction on the defendant’s criminal record. If a defendant’s participation in deferred adjudication is revoked, a judge may sentence the defendant any amount of time up to the maximum time in prison for the underlying offense, which is 20 years for sexual assault of an adult.
- Straight Probation: Probation allows an individual to live and function outside of prison, but it will still result in a permanent criminal conviction. Probation may include a fine, community service, reporting, classes, drug testing, no contact with the victim, and restitution payments. The maximum time allowed on straight probation is 10 years. If the defendant violates the terms of his or her probation, he or she can go to prison.
Where can I find additional resources?
Many universities provide counseling, student support groups, and other services. Check your university website, health centers, counseling centers, and student life departments for more resources.
The following websites may be helpful in finding a qualified lawyer: