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Shoplifting Court Process


The Arraignment. In New York State, all criminal cases generally start when you appear in court with your attorney for an arraignment. For most shoplifting cases that involve a desk appearance ticket, the arraignment date (also called a return date) is written on the face of the ticket. An arraignment is the official reading of the rights and charges concerning your case. In Anglo-American law, the arraignment was the accused's first court appearance wherein he or she was brought before a judge and the charges were read. Historically, the purpose was to orally inform the accused about the case since illiteracy was a common problem during the implementation of Anglo-Saxon law in the U.S. Under the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, defendants must receive notice of any criminal accusations that the prosecution has filed through indictment, information, or complaint. In New York, you have the right to prosecution by information meaning that uncorroborated accusations (hearsay) cannot be the sole basis of the prosecution. This can, in turn, be used to obtain a dismissal at your arraignment under the right circumstances. Shoplifting cases are no different. The prosecution must present a legally sufficient complaint that support a charge of larceny or possession of stolen property.

At your arraignment, you and your attorney will be generally informed about the nature of the charges, and what evidence the prosecution intends to use. Your attorney may move for a dismissal, enter a plea, make various motions (written or oral), and engage in negotiations. The arraignment is mainly informational in nature meaning that you and your attorney will learn a lot about the case but it is not a trial so neither the judge nor prosecutor will engage in any proceedings to determine the facts of your case. Generally, the judge can participate in negotiations, set bail, or adjourn or dismiss your case. The arraignment is a critical stage of any case. If you were to go to the arraignment without an attorney and plead guilty or otherwise admit guilt, you could be convicted. Once convicted, the arraignment judge has the power to sentence you up to the maximum penalty allowed by law. Because New York law contains arcane and overly harsh penalties (up to 1 year of jail for a first arrest and minor theft) never leave it to chance. Generally, there are three possibilities at your arraignment. Your case will be dismissed, you will be convicted, or your case will be adjourned (or rescheduled) to another court date. If you are thinking about pleading guilty at the arraignment, you should only do so after discussing it with an attorney. Generally, a guilty plea is permanent. Whether to accept an offer from the prosecution can be tricky. If you don't accept a very lenient plea bargain, it may not be offered later and you might end up with a worse outcome simply because you failed to accept a generous offer at the arraignment. Conversely, if you accept a plea bargain too early, you may miss an opportunity to get your case dismissed in the future. Hiring the right attorney will help ensure that you make the right decisions at the arraignment.

Post-Arraignment. If your case is adjourned (rescheduled) following the arraignment, you and your attorney will need to return to court. Adjournments generally have purposes attached to them. For example, your case may be adjourned to for you to return with an attorney (for situations where you did not appear with an attorney during the arraignment), adjourned for your attorney to file motions (such as a motion to dismiss your case), or for your attorney to negotiate with the prosecutor. Special motions can be made for shoplifting cases which presents an important way to fight your case and push for a successful outcome. 
The purpose of each adjournment can greatly affect the outcome of the case by altering your rights and can signal a window of opportunity for your lawyer to act. Each adjournment might be spaced by about 30-45 days but scheduling can be affected by your attorney. In complex misdemeanors, a few court appearances may be required to ensure the best outcome. Less complicated cases will, generally, require fewer adjournments and can, occasionally, be resolved at the arraignment.

What should you expect? After considering your situation, you might wander if you should take a "deal" at the arraignment. Be careful. The prosecutor is not required to protect your interests since this is your attorney's role so consult with an attorney regarding this issue. Additionally, not all deals are created equally. Some deals will lead to a permanent criminal record. Others might cause permanent employment, travel, immigration, or other consequences. Contact an experienced New York City criminal defense lawyer to discuss what outcomes are possible in your case.

Summary. In short, the court process, even for a first arrest retail theft case, can be complex. Obtaining the best outcome will greatly depend on your attorney. Lance Fletcher, a former Manhattan prosecutor and experienced New York City criminal defense lawyer, devotes his practice to helping good people in bad situations. He will give you a frank assessment of your situation, explain the options and what it will take to succeed. Call us at 212-619-3900.

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