How can lawyers defend criminals?

The most common question I am faced with as a Washington State criminal defense attorney is: “How do you defend criminals?” This question is generally based on two assumptions: 1. the defendant is obviously guilty; and 2. by defending him, you are trying to let this obviously guilty person get away with it. As you will see, these assumptions turn out to be incorrect.

arrest does not equal guilt

It is tempting to think that a Defendant must be guilty because the police arrested him for something. However, the law has a very different standard for judging when an arrest is valid and when a conviction is required.

A valid arrest requires probable cause. This term is defined in different ways, but generally exists when the facts and circumstances known to the arresting officer are reliable enough to cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed. If you think about that definition for a while, it becomes apparent that it’s actually a very low standard; and should be

The rule is designed to ensure that there is some evidence before an arrest is made, but balance the requirements of how strong that evidence is with the speed of decision required to catch criminals.

Here’s an example: A woman tells the police that a man stole her bag. The police question the man and he denies knowing anything about the bag. Finally, the wallet cannot be located. Under Probable Cause, there would be enough to warrant the man’s arrest since the woman said she stole his bag. Do we know if she did it or not? No. Should we let the judicial system determine if the man is guilty or not? Of course!

Knowing that an arrest simply starts the judicial process, officers often err in making an arrest in a close decision; as they should. Even the instructions read to jurors emphasize the point, stating that the fact that the defendant has been arrested has no bearing on whether or not he or she is guilty of the crime of which he or she is accused.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

We’ve all heard it on TV, but the standard in a criminal case is “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what does that mean? The term “reasonable doubt” can be defined differently, but generally it is:

One for which there is a reason and can come from evidence or lack of evidence. It is a doubt such as would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully, fairly, and carefully considering all the evidence or lack of evidence.

If we needed to convince a police officer beyond a reasonable doubt before he could arrest someone, all the “bad guys” would get away before the officer concluded his investigation.

What do you do if someone is guilty?

If someone is guilty, there is nothing a lawyer can do about it. keep that in mind

A jury is made up of normal people. No matter how skilled the lawyer is, if the defendant is obviously guilty, the jury will convict. In this case, the attorney’s job is two-part: finding out what charges the defendant is actually guilty of, and making sure the sentence is rational.


People are often accused of more, that is, accused of more than the State can prove. An example of this is when someone is charged with driving under the influence (DUI) and reckless driving. Very few DUI cases also meet the standards required for reckless driving. In this case, if the defendant is guilty of DUI but is not reckless, a good criminal defense attorney should be able to get the reckless driving charge dismissed even if the defendant is ultimately convicted of DUI.

rational judgment

Once a defendant is found guilty, the court’s next job is to impose sentence. The lawyer’s job becomes to make sure that the sentence is appropriate for the crime charged and the criminal history of the defendant. As a general rule, the more criminal convictions someone has, the more severely they will be sentenced for any new charges. Sometimes, however, the prosecution will seek to punish someone with little or no history in the same way that they would a career criminal. By sentencing first-time criminals and professional criminals alike, we do not reward people who have basically lived a good life or sufficiently punish those who choose a life of crime.

What to do if the State cannot prove the charge?

There are two main categories of cases where the prosecution fails to prove its case, either at the outset or at trial.

at first

There are often times when the prosecution simply does not have any proof that the defendant is guilty of a crime. In this case, you can file a Motion to Dismiss and ask a judge to review the evidence to see if a dismissal is required. This motion may require witnesses to appear and testify or it may be based on the police reports themselves.

at trial

If the prosecution has evidence that someone is guilty, that is not the end of the matter. How strong is that evidence? Are the witnesses credible? Do they have a grudge against the defendant? The heart of our judicial system is trial by jury. A trial is literally the first time someone hears ALL the evidence. Evidence can be stressful, but in a closed case it can be a life saver.

Technicalities and the Law

I often hear people say that a defendant got away due to some technicality. There are no “technicalities” in the Law, there is only The Law. Should it apply to everyone or should we allow the government to be immune from law enforcement? If the police violate the law, the remedy can range from the suppression of evidence to the dismissal of the case altogether.

The judicial system is our best attempt to create a process that is fair. However, like any system, it is only as good as the people who work on it. Defending people accused of crimes is not about “helping them get away with murder” but about ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. At The Cahoon Law Office, we still focus on one client at a time and ensure that all of our clients’ legal defenses and rights are utilized and protected.

Copyright (c) 2007 – The Law Office of Cahoon – All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *