Dallas criminal defense lawyer John Helms clarifies what it means if you don’t have a criminal record, or if you do and how it affects a criminal case.
Many people who are accused of a crime wonder how their criminal record, or lack of it, will affect their case. Normally, your criminal history does not affect whether you are guilty or not guilty of a crime with which you have been charged. Contrary to some people’s belief, you do not generally get one free crime before you can be found guilty, adds John Helms Dallas criminal defense lawyer.
For obvious reasons, though, your criminal history can have a significant effect on the punishment you receive if you are found guilty. If you have lived for a long while with a clean record, you are much more likely to get a lighter sentence if the crime is not too serious. This is because the justice system sees your conduct as not typical of your character so that you do not need a more serious punishment to stop you from committing more crime or to keep you away from society. On the other hand, adds criminal defense attorney Helms, “if you have a lengthy criminal record, the punishment you received in the past obviously was not enough to convince you to stop committing crime, you have been given chances before, and the justice system believes you will probably commit more crime later, so you need to be imprisoned to protect society. “
So, one way your record can affect your case is the plea bargain offer you receive from the prosecutor. You can expect to get a better offer if you have a clean record than one a mile long.
Maybe the most important way in which your criminal record can affect your case, though, is that it can sometimes determine whether or not you should testify at trial. Under the rules of evidence in most jurisdictions, with certain exceptions, a person’s criminal history is not admissible at trial. This means that the jury is not allowed to hear that you have been convicted of crimes in the past. The law considers this not relevant enough to whether a defendant committed the crime charged. It is also unfair to the defendant because a jury would be much more likely to think a person committed a crime if he or she has committed other crimes in the past.
But there is a BIG EXCEPTION. If you testify at trial, the government can generally tell the jury that you have been convicted of crimes in the past. This is because the law considers past convictions relevant to your credibility as a witness. So, if you hit the witness stand, the jury may be able to hear about your criminal record.
In some criminal cases, this can make a huge difference. There are many cases in which the only person who can effectively explain the defendant’s side of the story is the defendant. But if the defendant has a criminal record, and the jury would hear about it, putting the defendant on the witness stand could be a disaster. On the other hand, if the defendant exercises his or her right not to have to testify, it may be extremely difficult to explain the defendant’s version of the facts because no one else could testify about that. Criminal defense lawyers can make arguments to the jury, but they are not allowed to make an argument unless there is evidence to support it. A defense attorney can raise questions about the government’s evidence, or lack thereof, but defense attorneys cannot simply make up facts.
The rules of evidence put limits on the types of crimes about which the jury can be told and whether the jury can hear about crimes that were too long ago. In Texas, and in federal court, Rule 609 of the Texas and Federal Rules of Evidence has a general limit of crimes more than ten years ago. The rules are complicated, though, and there are exceptions.
Whether a defendant should testify is one of the most important, and sometimes the most difficult, decisions at trial. The fact that a defendant has a clean record does not mean the defendant should testify, and a criminal record does not mean the defendant should not. You should have an experienced trial lawyer who is an expert on the rules of evidence to advise you. I always start thinking about whether my client can and should testify way before trial, because this factors into how I evaluate my client’s chances at trial.
I have had lots of success planning ahead and telling my client’s story through other witnesses so that my client would not have to testify. I have also had a lot of success putting my clients on the stand. Either way, the decision about whether or not to testify is crucial, and you should get the best legal advice you can before deciding.
If you, a family member or someone you know has been charged with a crime and need help in the Dallas area, contact criminal defense lawyer John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.