Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

The principal difference involves the length of potential sentences. In Minnesota there are three different levels of offenses: misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and felonies. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is 90 days in jail and a $1,000.00 fine. The maximum penalty for a gross misdemeanor is one year in jail and a $3,000.00 fine. A felony is any criminal conviction which can result in a sentence of more than one year and one day. Depending on the sentence and plea negotiation, a felony sentence could be served in either a local jail or a prison. There may also be collateral consequences by pleading guilty. For example, you may be prohibited from possessing firearms, of you may be required to register as a sex offender. These requirements may apply whether you are convicted of a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony. You should review these collateral consequences with your attorney before pleading guilty or accepting a plea bargain.

If I plead guilty, will I know my sentence in advance?

That depends. Both State and Federal courts use sentencing guidelines for felonies. If you plead guilty to a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor in State court, a provision concerning the sentence is often included in the plea agreement. The same can be true of felonies. However, in Federal court, calculating a guideline sentence is more difficult and, under U.S. v. Booker, the sentencing guidelines are only advisory. Typically, a defendant in U.S. District Court will have only a general idea of a sentencing range. In Federal court, a defendant’s sentence may also be affected by whether he or she provided “substantial assistance” to law enforcement authorities. If a defendant provided “substantial assistance” the defendant’s sentence may be reduced far below the guideline and even below “mandatory minimum” sentences. It is important to discuss this information as quickly as possible with clients who are charged in Federal court.

Do I really need a lawyer? What if I just want to plead guilty?

Yes, you need an attorney. Every defendant should have an attorney. First, “just pleading guilty” might not be in your best interests. Often an attorney can identify legal issues or defenses which might be unknown to a lay person. Second, even assuming you truly want to plead guilty, an attorney will be able to explain why you should receive a reduced sentence or, depending on the charge, no jail time at all. Third, an experienced attorney may also have information about a particular judge’s sentencing practices which might be very important to you.

How can I be charged with more than one crime for a single incident?

There are generally two reasons why this might happen. First, sometimes the same conduct can constitute one or more crimes. For example, if a husband and wife become involved in a shouting match at a restaurant which leads to a physical confrontation, this may constitute both disorderly conduct and assault.  Second, some offenses have varying degrees. Many people are familiar with the multiple degrees of murder – first, second or third degree. This is true of many different crimes as well. A prosecutor may charge a defendant with multiple levels of the same criminal act, such a first, second or third degree murder or first, second, third or fourth degree DWI based on the specific allegations made by police. However, as a practical matter, a defendant will likely be sentenced for only one of these crimes.

How can you help me if I already admitted my guilt?

To be honest, I could have helped you more if you had called me before admitting your guilt. However, even if you have already confessed, or made an inculpatory statement, there may be ways I can help you. For example, it is possible that the statement was obtained unlawfully. If so, both your confession and evidence obtained from it can be suppressed at trial. Further, a careful reading of the “confession” might show that you misunderstood or misinterpreted some of the questions from police. If so, the effect of the confession can be blended at your trial.

Why can’t I just talk to police and tell my side of the story?

Most experienced criminal defense attorneys warn their clients not to talk to police. There are several practical reasons for this. At the outset, most criminal suspects or defendants simply do not understand the purpose of a police interview. By the time police are focused on a particular person as a criminal suspect, they are generally not looking for evidence of innocence. Instead, police are trying to gather evidence to support a conviction. Even an innocent statement can be misinterpreted by a police officer or prosecutor as being evidence of guilt. Experienced attorneys know that, with a few exceptions, criminal suspects typically hurt themselves by talking to police. Further, many criminal suspects naively believe that police will tell the truth during an interview. This is wrong. Police are allowed to lie to criminal suspects, and often do so. They will also feign sympathy to suspects or imply that if a defendant “tells the truth” or “admits what happened” the defendant will have a better outcome. Unless the statement is made in the presence of your attorney as part of a plea bargain, this is often untrue.

Am I better off pressing for a quick trial?

That depends. Sometimes, if the prosecution’s case has not been fully developed, pressing for a prompt trial might be an appropriate tactic. However, in some instances, the defendant might benefit from a delay. For example, if the defendant wishes to hire an expert witness, a delay might be necessary to obtain the expert’s report. In some emotionally charged situations, such as domestic assault, a defendant might benefit from the natural “cooling down” process, rather than rushing toward a trial.