Law Talk: Top three criminal law myths
This is one of the more common misconceptions about the law, and the truth is often devastating to an accused that is caught off guard. This is particularly so when recent changes to the law have made it extremely difficult to defend drunk driving cases.
A first offence of impaired driving is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months in jail. Upon conviction, the minimum sentence is a $1,000 fine and a driving prohibition of one year.
As for the driving prohibition, there are no exceptions for work, taking kids to school, medical needs, etc. You will absolutely lose your license for a year. In order to get your licence re-instated, there is a mandatory driver safety course which costs several hundred dollars. It may also be necessary to get a car-mounted breath tester which costs thousands of dollars to install and maintain. Finally, you can expect your insurance to go up by several thousand dollars for the next few years.
As if that weren't enough, you will automatically get a criminal record, which might affect future employment prospects or your admissibility to other countries like the United States.
2. MYTH: I don't need a lawyer because I'm innocent
The innocent need a lawyer at least as much as the guilty. In fact, an innocent person may need a lawyer even more than a guilty person; while the latter can simply plead guilty and be done with the matter, the innocent person may well have to defend him or herself at a trial.
The court process is by no means simple. While it is open to a person to represent themselves, the system is completely stacked against those who go unrepresented. The law is complicated and you need a person with legal expertise to help you advance a defence, a Charter of Rights argument, a constitutional challenge, or a procedural right. You may have a defence that you did not even know existed.
There are other advantages that lawyers provide. Many criminal lawyers have positive relationships with Crown Attorneys. They can leverage that relationship in your favour. When it comes to resolving your matter, you are not likely to be trusted or listened to by a Crown Attorney whose only information about you is that you're accused of committing a criminal offence.
If you are arrested and do not know the name of a criminal lawyer, you can and should speak to Legal Aid Ontario duty counsel immediately. Duty counsel is free, and the police must allow you to speak to them at your request. As soon as you are released, you should seek out a qualified criminal lawyer to represent you.
3. MYTH: Criminal cases get resolved quickly
If you watch Law and Order, you might get the feeling that it only takes a couple of weeks from the time a person is arrested to the time of the trial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even for simple criminal offences like shoplifting, it might take a year or more before the case is tried.
Typically, a first court appearance will take place six weeks after the arrest. From that date forward, copies of the evidence will slowly begin to trickle in to the defence lawyer. For instance, if there is a surveillance tape, it can take months before it is produced to the defence for review. Once the defence has the evidence, there are mandatory resolution discussions and possible pre-trial motions.
When a trial date is finally set, it will normally be scheduled between six months and a year in the future because of the backlog of cases in the system.
This column provides legal information only and is produced by the students of Community Legal Services and Pro Bono Students Canada (UWO). If you need legal advice please contact a lawyer, community legal clinic or the Lawyer Referral Service at 1-900-565-4LRS (a $6.00 charge will apply). You can contact Community Legal Services at 519-661-3352 to book an appointment to discuss your legal issue or mediation services. Fanshawe College students may also book an appointment to attend our outreach clinic at the college. Please call us at 519-661-3352 with any inquires or to book an appointment.