Sometimes perspective clients will call me and begin by saying, "I have a minor case," or "I know it's not a big deal but..."
It amazes me how someone can get arrested, or even issued a written promise to appear, and not consider that to be important.
I understand that when putting things in perspective, a small baggie of marijuana or $60 worth of items from Walgreens is not the same as a serious felony. But if you have any concern for your future whatsoever, you should understand that any criminal charge has consequences that can affect the rest of your life.
Even misdemeanors such as possession of marijuana and petit theft may not only result in criminal convictions and jail time, but they can leave you with an ugly arrest record that perspective employers will see. A possession of marijuana charge on your record tells perspective employers that you're a drug abuser and are therefore not reliable. A petit theft charge on your record shows employers that you are dishonest.
More often than not these assumptions are not true. Just because you got arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana does not make you unreliable nor does one instance of shoplifting make you dishonest. But in a competitive job market, employers often make snap judgments about job applicants based on just a little bit of information. So that insignificant charge on your record becomes a major strike against you when compared to applicants with no criminal history.
Those who think their charges aren't serious often tell me that they don't plan on hiring an attorney. They believe that they'll just go to court and "see what happens. "
Unless you are trained in the rules of evidence and criminal procedure, I would never encourage anybody to go to court alone just to "see what happens." And unless you would be willing to perform your own open-heart surgery, you should never be willing to represent yourself in criminal court.
It is a common misconception that some criminal charges are no big deal. While some criminal charges are certainly more serious than others and carry harsher penalties, a crime is a crime.
You need to be equipped with the best resources possible to mitigate the damage that a criminal charge can do. This means knowing how to resolve the case so that the charge can be sealed or expunged from your record. This means knowing how to negotiate a favorable resolution.
If you have low expectations for your future, you don't care about earning a quality living, you don't care to furthe your education (some criminal convictions can render you in eligible for student financial aid), and you don't much care about preserving your reputation, then by all means, go to court and see what happens.
But if you value your quality-of-life and hope to succeed in your future, then never underestimate the severity of a criminal offense.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving Miami-Dade and Broward.