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What should I know about the criminal justice system if I am facing potential or new criminal charges?


*Disclaimer: The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland does not handle criminal legal matters. Legal Aid can only help you with civil legal matters. If you are a potential or newly charged criminal defendant, contact the Public Defender’s office local to you. You can find your local Public Defender’s office here:*

The police want to speak to me about a criminal offense, what should I do?

You have an absolute constitutional right not to speak with the police or any official about anything that might implicate you in a crime.  You can choose to speak with the police, but you should only do so if an attorney is present with you.  You should refuse to speak with the police or any official until you contact an attorney.  That is generally true regardless of what you did or did not do.

If I am being arrested, what should I do?

  1. Do not argue or resist arrest. The only good time for making your arguments is after you have an attorney.  You are not going to talk yourself out of being arrested. You may well make things worse by speaking.
  2. Do not agree to allow the police to search your belongings or your property. The police may search without your consent, but do not provide that consent or you will be unable to successfully challenge the police actions later on.
  3. Do not talk to the police about your case.
  4. Do not speak with anyone else about your case, other than an attorney. You will be transported to the police station and/or to jail.  When you arrive at jail, you will find yourself housed with other persons who have been arrested. You will also interact with corrections officers.  DO NOT SPEAK TO OTHER INMATES OR TO CORRECTIONS OFFICERS ABOUT YOUR CASE.  Anything you say can be used against you and people in jail will sometimes use what you say against you to try to get a deal on their own case.
  5. Do not speak with anyone on the phone about your case. You may have the opportunity to use a phone to call relatives, either from the police station or at the jail.  DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR CASE ON THESE CALLS.  These calls are not confidential and are usually recorded.  Prosecutors review the tapes of these calls to see if you have said anything they can use as evidence in your case.
  6. Try to stay calm and be patient. You will generally see a judge within approximately 48 hours (though it is sometimes longer over the weekend).  While this may seem like a long time, it is very little time compared to what can happen if you make your case worse by speaking to people about your case and having that information used against you.

I cannot afford a lawyer. When and how will I get one?

You have a constitutional right to appointed attorney if you cannot afford one. You have a constitutional right not to speak with police without an attorney present.  This does not mean, however, that you will get an appointed attorney when you are first questioned by police.  In general, you will not receive an appointed attorney until your first court appearance.  Often, the attorney who represents you at the first court appearance will not be the permanent attorney representing you for the rest of your case.  In Municipal cases, you will generally get your permanent attorney at your first pretrial.  In Felony cases, you will generally get your permanent attorney at your arraignment on the indictment.

What happens at my first hearing and will I go to jail?

Felony cases: In a Felony case, you will often have an initial appearance in a Municipal Court for the purpose of advising you of the charges, setting a bond, and addressing the scheduling or waiver of a preliminary hearing.  You will not be asked to enter a plea at this proceeding and will not generally receive your permanent attorney.  If you are unable to post the bond imposed, you will go to jail until you are able to post the bond or get the bond reduced to something you can pay.  Occasionally, in a Felony case, a person will be directly indicted by a Grand Jury and will skip the initial appearance.  If that is the case, then your first court hearing will be your arraignment.  At the arraignment, you will plead not guilty, receive your permanent attorney, get your case assigned to a specific judge, and have a bond set.

Municipal cases: In a Municipal case, your initial appearance serves as a hearing to advise you of the charges, to set a bond, and to assign counsel and the specific judge.  Occasionally, in misdemeanor cases, there will be an opportunity to resolve the charges at the initial appearance by entering into a plea agreement with the City.  If you have any concerns or questions about a plea offer or the consequences of pleading guilty or no contest, you should wait to speak with your assigned attorney.

If I am in jail because of a criminal charge, how do I get out? What are my options regarding bond?

At your initial appearance or arraignment, the court will set a bond to secure your appearance at future proceedings.  In some cases, the court will set a personal bond which means that a dollar value is assigned to the bond, but you do not need to pay anything to get released from jail.  Instead, you sign paperwork promising to appear for court and comply with any other conditions of release set by the judge.  If you fail to appear, you will receive a warrant for your arrest and may be required to pay the dollar amount associated with the bond.

In other cases, the court will set a cash/surety/property (C/S/P) bond.   A dollar value will be set and the cash, surety, property will be used a “collateral” for your future appearance at court.  You may be required to post (or guarantee) the entire dollar amount set or may only be required to post 10% of the dollar amount, at the discretion of the court.

If you receive a C/S/P bond or 10% bond, you or someone on your behalf can post the bond by doing one of the following:

  • Posting the bond in-person in the Criminal Division of the Clerk’s Office located on the Second Floor of the Justice Center.
  • Posting the bond by telephone at (216) 698-5867. The telephonic posting of a bond will require a credit card and the ability to receive and complete bond paperwork (an email account with the ability to print and scan paperwork or complete a fillable PDF)

The Clerk’s Office charges an $85 fee on all bonds at the time of posting.

If you cannot afford to post the bond yourself, you can contact the Bail Project, a non-profit organization that provides free bail assistance to low-income individuals. The Bail Project will generally not post bonds more than $5000 (or $10,000 10% bonds), though it may make exceptions in certain cases. If they can assist you, the Bail Project will post your bond and provide other support (e.g., court reminders) to help you make your court dates. The Bail Project can be reached at (216) 223-8708 or by going to

If you cannot post the bond and the Bail Project cannot assist you, you can also enter into a contract with a private bail bond company. Under this arrangement, you pay a fee to the company (usually 10% plus some processing fees) and the company guarantees the remainder of the bond amount. The fee you pay to the private bail bond company will not be returned to you even if you appear at all court hearings and comply with all conditions of release. It is advisable to consult with an attorney prior to contacting a bail bond company.

When will I get information about the allegations against me?

At or before your initial appearance or arraignment, you will receive a complaint or indictment which identifies the criminal charges against you.  The information you receive in the complaint or indictment is generally limited to identifying the offense or offenses, the date(s) of the offense(s), and the alleged victim(s) of the offense(s).  You will generally not receive more detailed information about the allegations until you have a permanent attorney assigned and they receive discovery (e.g. police reports, body cams, witness statements, medical records) from the prosecutor.  Your attorney will then share that information with you.  Sometimes, if the discovery is designated as “Counsel Only,” your attorney cannot provide you a copy of the discovery, but they can and should go over all of the information with you.

When will I get a chance to tell my side of the story?

When you get an attorney assigned, you will have the opportunity to have confidential communications with counsel and explain your side of the story.  At this point, the attorney acts as a go-between. The attorney advocates on your behalf and on behalf of your story with the prosecutor and judge during pre-trial proceedings.  You will not have an opportunity to speak directly to either the prosecutor or the judge at this time; nor is it advisable to do so.  You do, however, have a constitutional right to a jury trial (or you can have a bench trial) and a constitutional right to testify at trial (or chose to remain silent).

A trial serves as the opportunity to tell your side of the story, regardless of whether you chose to testify.  Your attorney will work with you to determine whether your defense will focus on cross-examining the prosecution's witnesses, calling witnesses for the defense, or even calling you as a witness in your own defense.

If you chose to enter a guilty plea, you will have an opportunity at sentencing to provide your side of the story in mitigation of the potential sentence imposed by the court.

Written by Cullen Sweeney, Chief Public Defender of the Cuyahoga County Office of the Public Defender

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