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Ultimate Guide to Criminal Law

Georgia criminal law differs from legal proceedings in other states. If you are facing criminal charges in Georgia, you need to be well informed in regards to what you’re up against. An Atlanta criminal defense lawyer will be able to guide you through this complicated process. With an experienced criminal defense law firm on your side, you can have a better chance at getting a lesser sentence, a cleared record, or a minor punishment.

Finding a good Georgia criminal defense attorney can be difficult when you don’t fully understand what’s at stake, but FBA Law is here to help make things a little more clear. In this guide, we explain the ins and outs of criminal law. If you or someone you know is currently dealing with criminal charges, then this guide is for you. Don’t be in the dark about your legal proceedings—get informed with our Ultimate Guide to Criminal Law!

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What is the difference between criminal law and civil law?

In terms of civil vs criminal law, there are a few key differences.

Civil law deals with private rights. A civil case focuses on an individual who has had their rights violated by another entity, or has a dispute with an individual or organization. A civil case doesn’t always have to go to trial, and can sometimes be solved through a third-party mediator.

In contrast, during a criminal case, the government is deciding whether or not an individual should be punished for breaking the law, and if so, how that punishment should be carried out. Criminal defense law is carried out through the criminal court system, and deals with legal charges like drug crimes, theft, assault, and more. The cases that can be applied to the question, What is criminal law? are widely varied in terms of the crime itself, and the severity of the punishment.

Another key difference between civil law and criminal law is the burden of proof. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the state or federal government to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or else they are acquitted. In a civil case, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove that the defendant is liable for damages.

Both types of cases can go before a jury, but a criminal defendant faces legal penalties including probation, fines, or jail time if found guilty, while a civil defendant may be ordered to financially compensate the plaintiff if a jury decides they were liable for an act of wrongdoing.

What does a criminal defense lawyer do?

A criminal law defense attorney is on the side of the person who is being charged with the criminal offense. A criminal defense law firm will work to research the case, perform investigative work that puts their client in a positive light, and negotiate with the prosecutor on the client’s behalf.

Criminal defense lawyers can work with all ages, even young adults. A juvenile criminal defense attorney will work to ensure that the young adult they are representing still has a chance at a future that includes a college education and gainful employment. An important part of juvenile criminal defense is to mitigate recidivism, as repeated charges can be catastrophic on a young adult who has barely started their life.

At Fennell, Briasco, & Associates, we have over 85 years of combined experience with the Georgia criminal justice system. We utilize aggressive legal strategies to fight for your rights and get you the best outcome possible. If you are facing criminal charges and want to know what all we can do for you, don’t be afraid to contact us for a free consultation.

Do I need a criminal defense lawyer?

If you are facing criminal charges that go beyond a speeding ticket or jaywalking citation, then you likely need a criminal law attorney. A criminal defense law firm will give you the representation you need to gain an edge against your prosecutors and have a chance at a positive outcome in your case. Having a criminal defense attorney who has experience in cases just like yours will tip the scale in your favor, as this legal professional will have knowledge on angles you can try that a regular, state-appointed public defender may not have.

However, if you meet the financial qualifications, you may be entitled to the assistance of a public defender, and we recommend this course of action if you do not have the resources to pay the legal fees of a private defense attorney. Most regular citizens do not have the legal knowledge to defend themselves adequately in a criminal case, and taking that route could easily cost you your freedom.

Still not sure if you need a criminal defense lawyer? In the next section, we list some examples in regards to common criminal law practice areas. If any of these areas apply to you, then it may be a good idea to get the legal expertise that a criminal defense attorney can provide.

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Criminal Law Practice Areas

There are many types of criminal law, and some criminal charges require a certain amount of expertise that can only be achieved by a professional in that field. If you need a criminal law defense attorney, make sure that you are looking for an expert in your specific case. Criminal defense law is a very broad practice, and some attorneys will be better suited to your case, depending on their experience. If you want the best chance at a good outcome, you’ll want a legal professional who has already won plenty of cases just like yours beforehand.


Driving under the influence (DUI) is most commonly associated with alcohol. However, this charge can also be applied if the driver is under the influence of drugs, or has even simply fallen asleep at the wheel from tiredness. In terms of alcohol, if a driver has a high blood-alcohol (BAC) level, then they can get charged with DUI.

But how high is too high? The legal limit for drunk driving varies depending on your age and occupancy. If your BAC levels are either at or above the following percentages, then you can expect to be sitting in the back of a police car:

  • 0.08% – Class C Drivers
  • 0.04% – Commercial Drivers
  • 0.02% – Drivers Under 21

If you have been charged with a DUI in the state of Georgia, then you need to call a Georgia DUI attorney right away. This criminal defense lawyer can help you either lessen your charges or get them expunged, depending on your current record.

Traffic Offenses

When you are cited for a traffic offense, you not only have a costly ticket to deal with, but you will also have points counted against you on your driving record. If you get 15 points on your record over the course of 2 years, you can get your license suspended. You can get up to 7 points reduced every 5 years by taking a defensive driving course, or you could wait for the points to naturally drop off, which happens exactly two years after the points were given. You can also consult with a Georgia traffic offense attorney in order to make an informed decision regarding your charges.

Below are all possible traffic offenses that can be applied to your driving record:

  • Speeding
  • Hit-And-Run
  • Failure to Signal Turn
  • HOV Lane Violation
  • Failure to Obey Traffic Control Devices
  • Unlawful Passing of a School Bus
  • Reckless Driving
  • Texting While Driving
  • Following Too Closely
  • No Proof of Insurance
  • Failure to Stop at a Stop Sign
  • Driving on a Suspended License
  • Habitual Violator
  • Failure to Yield
  • Improper U-Turn
  • Failure to Maintain Lane
  • Driving Without a License
  • Improper Lane Change/Improper Passing

Suspended License

If you end up getting your license suspended because of a traffic offense, and then you are caught driving with that suspended license, this is considered to be a criminal offense. If you did not know that your license was suspended at the time of the offense, then this is considered to be a civil traffic offense. However, if you knowingly went out on the road with a suspended license, then this will result in a criminal charge on your record. If it is your first conviction for driving with a suspended license, you will most likely receive a misdemeanor, which is a lighter punishment compared to more serious criminal offenses. Misdemeanor punishments often include fines and/or community service.

Drug Crimes

If you are caught with a controlled substance like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, pharmaceutical opiates, etc., you could be facing serious charges that include prison time. Drug charges include possession, possession with intent to distribute, and paraphernalia. If you want to avoid serious penalties, you need the right representation from a defense attorney who specializes in drug offenses.

Marijuana and Cannabis Defense

While the law is changing across the country to the point where some states allow legal possession and use of marijuana, there are still some areas that do not allow these activities. Georgia is one of those states. There is some leniency with CBD products, but anything with THC is still prohibited. Georgia laws regarding marijuana and cannabis can be confusing, and you may receive a criminal charge that might not actually apply to your situation. If you don’t want to get stuck with a Georgia marijuana charge on your record, you should contact an experienced defense lawyer.

Theft and Property Crimes

If you have interfered with someone else’s use or enjoyment of their property, then legally, you have committed a property crime. Theft and property crimes in Georgia include:

  • Theft
  • Criminal Trespass
  • Shoplifting
  • Vandalism
  • And More
  • Entering Auto
  • Criminal Damage to Property

If you are facing theft or property crime charges, this means you are also facing prison time, penalties, and a criminal record. You need an experienced theft and property crimes attorney to help you navigate this minefield of a legal battle. Your criminal defense attorney will be able to give you the guidance and representation you need, and could help to lessen your charges and achieve a positive outcome in your case.

Probation Violations

Citizens on probation are very limited in where they can go, what they can do, and who they can associate with. All of these aspects of everyday life and then some are all determined by the terms of their probation. Probationers may have to pay a fine, participate in community service, meet with a probation officer on a regular basis, comply with random drug and alcohol testing, and many other guidelines that can prevent them from enjoying their life.

Because of this, many people do everything they can to get through their probation period without any violations, but sometimes, situations occur that can result in a probation violation. Violation of probation is a very serious offense, and can result in a harsher sentence than you were originally facing. If you are in this situation, you should hire a Georgia probation lawyer to help fight for your rights and argue against the terms of your violation.

Crimes Against Persons

In terms of criminal law, crimes against persons (or offense against persons) includes acts that result in direct physical harm or force being applied to another person. Crimes against persons charges are typically seen in domestic violence cases, simple assault charges, and simple battery. Even the threat of harm can be considered a criminal offense in this case. Crimes against persons is a very broad charge that can encompass many offenses, including kidnapping, stalking, and harassment. This can be a very complicated area of criminal law, so having a skilled defense attorney at your side can only be beneficial for the outcome of your case.

Generally, someone who has been charged with a crime will have an initial appearance before a judge within 48-72 hours. After the initial appearance, a preliminary hearing will be set to determine probable cause, whether the person arrested is the person who is believed to have committed the crime, whether the charges are appropriate, and whether the crime will be considered a felony or a misdemeanor. It is before this preliminary hearing that it is vital to secure criminal defense representation, whether from a private lawyer that you hire, or from a public defender. If you’re looking for a Woodstock criminal defense attorney with a reputation for getting favorable results, give FBA Law a call today.

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Understanding the Criminal Justice Process

There are a few important things that will happen between when you are arrested for a crime and when, or if, you sit trial. You don’t go straight from the back of a police car to a trail overnight; in fact, the period between an arrest and a trial can sometimes span years.

How long do you have to wait before going to trial?

The average wait time for a criminal trial to begin will vary by the severity of the charges. If you have an infraction like a traffic ticket, citation, or minor violation like speeding, then you won’t even need to go to court at all. This process can be dealt with through the mail, over the phone, or even online. The ticket you receive for your infraction will state whether or not you are required to appear in court, and is usually resolved by paying a fine, going to a court-approved traffic school or other program, or giving proof that you have fixed your violation at your court date.

If the charge is more severe, like a misdemeanor or felony, then after you are arrested, you can expect three possible outcomes:

  • You are charged and released “on your own recognizance,” which means you are aware that you will need to appear in court at a later date. Sometimes you’ll be released after giving a written promise that you will show up for your court appointment at the correct date and time.
  • You are charged and booked. If you are eligible for bail, then bail will be set. If you can post bail, then you’ll be released after being given a notice for your court appearance.
  • You are charged and booked. If you aren’t eligible for bail, or if you aren’t able to post your bail, then you will stay in jail until your court date.

For misdemeanors and felony charges, the law requires that you are to be brought before a judge within 48 hours of your arrest, but this law excludes Sundays and holidays. If you have posted bail, then your court date will be scheduled weeks or months after what it would have been if you had stayed in custody. If you have been released “on your own recognizance,” the court date can vary even more.


Timeline for Misdemeanors

If you are in jail on a misdemeanor charge and would like to enact your right to a speedy trial, then, according to your legal rights, your trial date will be no later than 30 days after the date you were arraigned or when you gave a plea (whichever date is later). If you aren’t being held behind bars, then the trial date can be set no later than 45 days after the time of your arraignment or plea.

You can also waive your right to a speedy trial if you would like more time to work with a criminal defense lawyer and prepare your case or to allow for plea negotiations with the prosecutor. If you’re wondering if you need a lawyer for a misdemeanor charge, or are looking for more information about misdemeanor crimes in Georgia, visit our misdemeanor litigation page.


Timelines for Felony Charges

If you have been given a felony charge, then the judge will inform you during your arraignment of your charges and you will be required to give a plea. If you plead “not guilty,” then you will be informed of your constitutional rights, and will be given an attorney if you can’t afford one.

There will be a preliminary hearing at some point between the time of your arraignment and the time of your trial, where your district attorney will present an argument and evidence to a judge that there was probable cause for the crimes that you were charged with. It is your constitutional right to have a speedy preliminary hearing within 10 days after your arraignment. You can waive this right, but you will still have a hearing within 60 days of your arraignment, according to your additional constitutional rights. But you can waive these rights as well.

During your preliminary hearing, if the judge agrees with the district attorney’s stance on probable cause, you will then be held in order to answer these charges. A formal complaint will then be filed by the prosecution that alleges the charges against you, known as the “Indictment.” You will be arraigned for a second time, where you are given this Information.

Legally, the Information must be filed within 15 days of the date that you are held to answer at your preliminary hearing. Your trial must then start within 60 days of your second arraignment (when you were given the Information).


Pleading in a Criminal Case

At an arraignment, the judge reads the charges and the accused will be asked whether or not they plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

Pleading “nolo contendere,” or “no contest” means that you will not attempt to fight the charges. This is typically how defendants in a traffic case will plead.

Pleading guilty is not as simple as it sounds; the court must still determine that the defendant gave their plea freely, and the jury needs to agree that the person is guilty as charged. The judge will sometimes give a lighter sentence in these cases, depending on the circumstances of the crime.

Sometimes, an agreement can be reached for a lesser sentence or minor punishment if the defendant concedes with a guilty plea. These agreements are called plea bargains, and the terms of these agreements are worked on by both the criminal defense lawyer and the prosecutor.

But what is a plea hearing in a criminal case? This is a special hearing that happens before a trial, where the defendant pleads guilty on the grounds of avoiding the courtroom and also a harsher sentence. Plea bargains are a very popular option, especially in cases where jail time can’t be avoided, but can be lessened.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, the prosecution will then have to prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime in order for them to be convicted by a jury. When someone denies the charges against them, there are several different methods of defense a lawyer will use to support that denial.

Types of Criminal Defenses

In a criminal case, it is the responsibility of the government, represented by a prosecution team, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are guilty. Otherwise, a jury will likely not find you guilty of the crime. This is called having the “burden of proof.” Criminal law prosecutors are responsible for gathering evidence and creating arguments that will put you in a bad light. If the prosecution has a weak argument, then this will work in your favor. Your criminal defense attorney’s biggest priority is creating an argument that is stronger and more air-tight than the prosecution’s.

There are several common types of criminal defense, or strategic arguments that challenge the evidence brought forward by the prosecution. These include:

  • Innocence/Having an Alibi
  • Violations of Constitutional Rights
  • Insanity
  • Self Defense/Defense of Others/Defense of Property
  • Intoxication (Voluntary or Involuntary)
  • Mistake of Law/Mistake of Fact
  • Duress/Coercion
  • Abandonment/Withdrawal
  • Necessity
  • Statute of Limitations

Deciding which defense to use is vital in creating an argument that is solid and can contradict the prosecutions. In order to persuade the jury of your innocence, employing a criminal defense lawyer who knows their stuff is paramount.

How does a criminal trial work in Georgia?

What percentage of criminal cases go to trial? About 5% of all criminal cases, including misdemeanors and felonies, actually go to trial. The other 95% are either dismissed or resolved with a plea bargain. If a case goes to trial, the steps are pretty straightforward, and follow the same process regardless of the case.

These six stages of criminal trial include:

Jury Selection – It is very rare that a case will only be heard by a judge, as the majority of criminal cases involve a full jury. The members of the jury are chosen by the judge, prosecutor, and attorneys for the defendant. Potential jurors are questioned on matters that pertain to the case, their personal opinions that relate to these matters, and any life experience that may or may not make their opinion be biased. From there, a group of jurors are chosen who are most likely to have a neutral opinion about the criminal case that they will be taking part in.

Opening Statements – The first people to start off a trial are the prosecutor and the criminal defense attorney. The prosecutor goes first, since they have the “burden of proof” in regards to the defendant’s guilt. The opening statements of both parties will ultimately tell the same story, but spin it in a way that is favorable to their side. The prosecutor will tell a narrative that puts the defendant in a bad light, while the criminal defense attorney will give examples and evidence of why the defendant was justified in their actions, or how they are being wrongly accused.

Witness Testimony, Cross-Examination, and Evidence Presentation – This stage of the process is also referred to as “case-in-chief,” and is the part of the trial where witnesses are interviewed by both the prosecution and the defense, and evidence is also presented to the courtroom. The side who has called the witness to the stand will first perform a “direct” examination, where they ask questions whose answers strengthen their argument. Then, the opposing party can perform a “cross-examination” to discredit the narrative that the witness has painted, but this party is not required to cross-examine any witness, especially if doing so would ultimately end up hurting their argument.

Closing Arguments – This is very similar to the Opening Statements, where both the prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer will each sum up the narratives, arguments, witness statements, and evidence that has been portrayed during the trial; all in a compelling way that makes their stance seem like the correct one.

Jury Instruction – At this point, the judge instructs the jury on what legal standards they need to use when making their verdict. Legal standards change on a case by case basis, and the judge decides which legal standards apply based on the criminal charges and the evidence that has been presented. The judge will instruct the jury on what findings the jury will need to use in order to reach a certain conclusion, and will define a list of possible crimes that the jury can consider, and information about each crime. This will help the jury reach an informed conclusion for their verdict.

Jury Deliberation & Verdict – It is at this point that the jury is left alone to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime(s) that they have been charged with. This process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, and can only be concluded once the jury reaches a unanimous decision. When the jury reaches a verdict, they will send their foreperson, or head juror, to tell the judge the verdict. Then, the judge will announce this verdict in open court. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision, then the judge will declare a mistrial, and the court process will start again at the beginning, the Jury Selection stage.

Types of Punishment in Criminal Law

There are a few types of criminal punishment that you can expect if you are found guilty in your criminal court case, which include:

  • Retribution: “an eye of an eye,” or a punishment that matches the crime committed.
  • Deterrence: this is done with the goal in mind of preventing future crimes, and can be done on a specific or general scale. For example, when the general public learns of a punishment that was given to a person who committed a crime, they are less likely to commit that same crime, for fear of the consequences.
  • Rehabilitation: this is a method whose goal is to prevent future crime by working to alter the criminal’s behavior. This method involves programs that can be administered while in prison, like educational and vocational procedures, placement in a treatment center, and mental health counseling.
  • Incapacitation: this is a form of isolation or removal from society, where the criminal is sent to prison, given house arrest, or even given the death penalty.
  • Restoration: this method was designed with the goal of the offender making amends, and is usually conducted on juveniles. During Restoration, the criminal will meet with their victim and hear the victim’s thoughts and opinions on what they experienced. The offender will then aim to make amends and seek forgiveness.


In some cases, a judge may see probation as an adequate alternative to jail time. Probation serves as a sort of grace period, where the offender is able to still have a normal, though limited, life under the supervision of a probation officer. In our earlier section of this guide to criminal law, where we discussed criminal law practice areas and the most common types of criminal offenses, we described the consequences of probation violations. If you can recall that section, then you know that anyone who is on probation has a very limited lifestyle, where they are constantly under stress of whether or not they are meeting the guidelines of their probation.

Because violating the terms of a probation can lead to worse consequences than what a probationer faced before their sentence, a person who is on probation can have a great deal of anxiety throughout the course of their probationary period.


Criminal Appeals

When a person who is convicted of a crime asks a higher court system to review their case for legal errors, this is called a criminal appeal. In Georgia, criminal appeal lawyers can be a great asset to have for this process, as they have experience and knowledge regarding what paperwork needs to be filed, and what professionals you need to contact in order to have your case reviewed by the right people.

How much does a criminal defense lawyer cost?

The cost of a criminal defense attorney will be determined by your own income, and the complexity of your case. If you are in a low income bracket, you may be eligible for a court-appointed attorney. If you are able to afford your own personal criminal law defense attorney, there are some fees that you need to be aware of.

If your attorney decides that conducting investigative work (like performing chemical testing or bringing in a psychologist) will help your case, this can make your final bill climb up a substantial amount. You should also be aware of the fees of just your attorney, the cost of which is determined by the experience of your criminal defense lawyer, the complexity of your case, whether or not your case goes to trial, and many other factors.

With these things in mind, the cost of a criminal defense attorney can range anywhere between $1,000-$15,000, with the average charges being at around $8,000. While a criminal defense lawyer tends to be pretty expensive, one could argue that no price is too high when jail time is a real threat.

How to Find a Good Criminal Defense Attorney

If you want to have the best chance with your case, you need top criminal defense attorneys on your side. You can try searching for “the best criminal defense attorney near me” on your maps, but you may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of results. If you don’t want to waste time researching criminal defense lawyers near you, you can pick up the phone and call FBA Law to find the best Woodstock criminal defense lawyer near you.

Our team of criminal defense attorneys are highly trained, and have plenty of experience handling a variety of complex criminal cases. Our team of legal professionals has the knowledge and skill set you need to get the best outcome in your case. Call us today to learn more: (770) 956-4030.