Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Know Your Rights

Guest blog post by Angela Torregoza—a criminal defense and immigration attorney at the Law Office of Mercedes S. Cano, a certified LGBTBE-company by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). Contributing as @venusinorbit, she writes about law and art on 12ozProphet, an online magazine featuring articles, pictures, and interviews related to graffiti. In her free time she writes about art and social justice in her blog, Venus Orbits for Justice and on Instagram

In this climate of indiscriminate and sometimes violent policing, many folks find themselves arrested for several reasons, and at times for innocuous and permissible behavior. In addition to racially-profiled apprehensions, police have also arrested folks at political protests; for “manspreading;” for jumping the turnstile; and for riding their bikes on the sidewalk, to name a few.

Even black officers are not immune to discriminatory policing. Four black parole officers recently filed suit against the Ramapo Police Department in Upstate New York, alleging their civil rights were violated when they were held at gunpoint and detained by police officers last year. Read the full article here.


Photo from Wikimedia. Labeled for reuse.

Specific groups such as immigrants and folks in the transgender community are particularly susceptible to such harassment. The combination of cultural and language barriers, lack of knowledge about the legal system and their marginalized status make them especially vulnerable. In fact, transgender people in New York City are routinely profiled and wrongfully arrested for prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Although the law currently prohibits the use of condoms as proof of guilt in prostitution cases, LGBTQ folks living and working in highly-policed areas have expressed their continued fear of the police as well as in carrying condoms, due to the lack of uniform implementation of the law.

People never expect to get arrested, and when they do, they are usually lost in the world of legalese and often represented by an assigned counsel who is unable or unwilling to explain the arrest charges, the criminal court process and the consequences of a criminal conviction. These consequences are particularly fatal for immigrants whose immigration status can be negatively impacted.

This article is a brief guide to the criminal court process, the effects of a conviction and some suggestions on self-advocacy. This is meant to provide a basic starting point for your research and is not an exhaustive resource nor does it constitute legal advice. If you are arrested please contact an attorney.

Where to get legal help? 

Criminal Court Process:

  1. Arraignments: The arraignment is a defendant’s (person arrested and charged with an offense) first court appearance after the arrest. A judge determines whether to set bail or release the defendant without bail. If it’s your first arrest for a non-felony charge and you have a lot of positive equities (steady employment, ties to the community, etc.) you will likely be released without bail.
  2. Pretrial Hearings: More than 90% of criminal cases do not go to trial and are often resolved at the pretrial phase. Due to the financial and other burdens of a trial, defendants often plead guilty to lesser charges as part of the plea-bargaining process or their cases dismissed, often as part of a legal mechanism known as an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD). The plea-bargaining and ACD processes are among the many points resolved during pretrial hearings.
  3. Trial: In a criminal trial, a judge or a jury examines the evidence to decide whether, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the defendant committed the crime in question. For more in-depth information, please click here.
  4. Disposition: This is the resolution of your criminal case and dictates whether you have to follow certain conditions to end the case. For example, if your case was dismissed, that means that the charges filed against you are null and you will not have a criminal record. In certain cases, where there is a guilty plea, you may have to pay a fine or complete certain conditions, such as community service or restitution, before the case ends.

Photo from Flickr. Labeled for reuse.

I’m a US Citizen. What are the consequences of pleading guilty to a charge?

The negative consequences of a guilty plea often come attendant to a felony charge. These collateral consequences can be penalties, disabilities and disadvantages, other than the sentence itself, that occur automatically as a result of the conviction itself.

The most common collateral consequences include:

  • Voter disenfranchisement
  • Loss of business or professional license
  • Felon registration requirements
  • Ineligibility for public benefits

I’m not a US citizen. Will I get deported?

If you are a green card holder, someone who has let their immigration status expire, or undocumented, pleading guilty to a charge, even if it is a misdemeanor, can negatively impact your immigration status.

Pleading guilty to a crime of domestic violence, prostitution, drug charges or gambling offenses, to name a few, can prevent a green card holder from becoming a citizen since these convictions will bar a finding of good moral character required for naturalization. For the undocumented, this could prevent them from obtaining green cards, and could even trigger deportation proceedings.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, it is doubly important that you inform your lawyer of your immigration status so they can work with you to obtain a disposition that will not negatively impact your immigration status. For a useful chart from the Immigrant Defense Project, detailing the immigration consequences of a criminal conviction, click here.

How do I protect and advocate for myself?

  1. If you are involved in work or activities involving significant police enforcement or live and work in an area with disproportionate police presence, it is important to educate yourself about the laws related to your chosen work or activity. Read relevant legal guides and articles (if you’re into graffiti, read my article, Graffiti and Police Misconduct: Knowing and Understanding Your Rights on 12ozProphet), and seek legal advice from reputable organizations (contact Sex Workers Project for legal and social services for individuals in sex work). Additionally, there are websites that provide general information such as Avvo and Nolo. Lucky for us, there is also a free legal helpline in NYC, Just Info (1-855-JST-INF0 or 1-855-578-4630), which provides free legal information and referrals.
  2. Inform your assigned legal counsel at arraignments if you have any special issues, including impact of convictions on children/family members, immigration status, business or professional licenses, receipt of public benefits and other critical facts. Any history of harassment or inaction from law enforcement should also be discussed with your attorney. The more information your attorney has regarding how the criminal proceedings could affect you, the better she can advocate on your behalf.
  3. Ask your assigned counsel to explain the charges and the factual bases for your arrest. The more you know about your case, the better you’ll be able to work with your attorney in presenting a good case on your behalf. Be honest and give your attorney all the facts as you recall. Remember that your attorney is bound by attorney-client privilege, so anything you tell her will be kept in confidence. The more information she has regarding your case, the better she can advocate for a positive outcome on your case.

Photo from Wikimedia. Labeled for reuse.

  1. Before you plead guilty to any charges, ask your attorney to fully explain the effect of that plea to your personal circumstances. Do not be pressured into pleading to any charges. You have the right to a trial and for the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are in fact guilty of the charges they have against you. If you cannot afford an attorney, you are entitled to free legal representation. If you do not meet the income threshold at nonprofit legal organizations, call the NYC Bar for low-bono legal options. More information can be obtained on their website or by calling (212) 626-7373.
  2. Take your assigned counsel’s contact information and regularly touch base with her regarding the status of your case. Most assigned counsels have a huge caseload and you do not want to get lost in the shuffle. If you think that your case is being neglected, ask to speak to their supervising attorney. When you have a criminal case, your life hangs in a balance, and it is the time to be proactive and exercise your own agency in how the next chapter of your life unfolds.
  3. If you are undocumented or out-of-status, it is always a good idea to consult with an immigration attorney who can explain immigration consequences of criminal convictions. You can also call Immigrant Defense Project’s free immigration hotline: (212) 725-6422. Click here for more information. If you are a green card holder, consult an immigration attorney before you apply for naturalization. Certain convictions are bars to naturalization and an application can trigger an immigration contact or deportation proceedings. For reputable immigration providers, see American Immigration Lawyers Association’s (AILA) directory.

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