In Trouble for the First Time in Pinellas County?

At St. Petersburg Criminal Defense Attorney Sean McQuaid, I specialize in representing defendants either charged or under investigation for a first-time criminal offense in Pinellas County, Florida. Because my law practice is so focused on these situations, I am in a unique position to provide guidance. While the Office of the State Attorney in Pinellas County is extremely aggressive compared to other jurisdiction in Florida, a first-time offender has more options and generally faces less consequences.

St. Petersburg First-Time Offender Attorney

In every case, my goal is to keep the offender’s record clean, avoid jail, and minimize the consequences. Because of my vast experience and connections to the prosecutors and judges in Pinellas County, I am able to achieve results that other lawyers cannot. However, my biggest asset in every case is the client’s willingness to do the work to prove to the State Attorney and Court that he or she is worthy of a second chance. People who have never been involved in the criminal justice system know they are in trouble, but often do not know where to begin. They may have received advice from a friend or family member, but often this advice is misleading, late, or inaccurate. I strive to provide frank answers to questions and come up with a strategy for the defense of every case. First-time offenders usually have the resource of being able to rely on family for assistance, and this is usually a huge help. Having a parent, grandparent, or loved one present and active in the case is a signal to the prosecutor and the judge that the defendant has a support system and is unlikely to get in trouble again. I cannot stress how important this support is to the strategy of a case because someone who comes before the court with no support shows a judge that he or she has probably alienated the family through a series of bad choices. The lack of family support signals that the defendant has run out of chances with the family and that the person deserves harsh punishment. If you sit in a courtroom at the Pinellas County Justice Center, you will see many people alone and represented by the Office of the Public Defender and receiving brutal punishment. This fact is simply the reality of the criminal justice system in Pinellas County.

Types of Crimes Committed by First-Time Offenders

It has been my experience that certain types of crimes are more likely to be committed by first-time offenders. After the case is handled, they usually never have any further criminal charges. Some examples of charges that fall into this category are First Time DUIs, domestic battery, drug possession (possession of a controlled substance), and disorderly conduct (intoxication). While someone can obviously commit any time for the “first-time” that they are in trouble, violent crimes and anything requiring planning are rare for those without a criminal record.

Common Strategies for First-Time Offenders:

While no two cases are the same, there are common strategies to handle mistakes made by people with no criminal history. However, in every case, I advise defendants to take whatever steps possible to minimize the consequences or “fix” the problem that led them to this point. For example, if you have caused an accident while DUI, cooperate with your insurance company to make sure that the damage to the other vehicle is fixed quickly. Also, it is generally a good idea to enroll in and complete DUI School that is run by Suncoast Safety Council. If you have been involved in a drug case such as marijuana and you don’t have a medical marijuana card, then either get a card or get clean. Providing negative drug screens to the prosecutor or the judge can greatly help your situation. If you have been involved in a battery arrest, then consider doing a voluntary 8 hour anger management class or getting enrolled in some form of counseling. None of the suggestions above are an admission of guilt, but they certainly will help minimize the consequences to you and improve your chances at getting the charges dismissed or reduced.

Immediate Contact with the Prosecutor of Law Enforcement Officer to Avoid or Minimize Charges

In Pinellas County, after law enforcement initiates the charge or there is an arrest, the case gets referred to the Office of the State Attorney to be investigated. At this stage, a prosecutor is assigned who will speak to the officer, meet with any victims, and make a decision if and what type of charge to file. It is during this investigation phase that a criminal defense attorney can present your side of the story, any defenses, evidence, or mitigating factors. I am often able to get charges dropped or filed as lesser charges during this phase. If a defendant waits too long and this phase is missed, it is much more difficult to get a case resolved. This philosophy is unique to Pinellas County-once a charge is filed, the prosecutors are tough to convince otherwise.

Likewise, if you have not been arrested and simply find out that you are being investigated by a law enforcement agency, the influence of a criminal defense attorney can greatly improve your chances to avoid an arrest. The easiest way for a police officer to make a case is to get an admission or inconsistent statement from an accused. When I am retained early on and am able to prevent the police from coercing my client into making an incriminating statement, I can often eliminate this crucial piece of evidence. Whatever the situation, getting a lawyer early on in the process is always a good idea since your defense will be prepared by the time your case gets in front of a prosecutor.

Diversion Programs Aimed to Keep a Clean Record

In Pinellas County, there are many diversion programs run by the Office of the State Attorney for first-time offenders. These programs apply to both misdemeanors and felonies. The most common program is called pre-trial intervention, or PTI. By entering the program, your case is “diverted” away from the court system and is controlled by the State Attorney. Misdemeanor PTI lasts between 6-12 months and felony PTI lasts for 18 months. During the program, you will be required to stay out of trouble, complete a series of conditions such as community service or counseling, you must remain clean of alcohol and illegal drugs, and you must have a job. The reward for completing the program is that the case against you is dismissed and you are eligible to seal your record. Thus, upon completion of PTI, you have no criminal record. This program is often very attractive to first-time offenders because it guarantees that the case will be dismissed. In some cases when the offender on PTI performs really well, the prosecutor will even allow early termination.

It should be noted that the PTI is only permitted if the victim approves. Thus, it is not automatic. And, PTI is not available yet for DUIs in Pinellas County as of January 2020. While there is a growing trend in other more progressive counties to allow PTI for DUIs, Pinellas County is conservative and has not yet approved this option.

Legal Defense Tactics

Trials for first-time offenders are very rare because there are usually options available that make a trial too risky. In Pinellas County, if you go to trial and lose, expect to go to jail or prison. The judges in Pinellas County punish those who go to trial and lose even if the person has not been in trouble before.

However, just because the odds of going to trial are slim, that does not mean that you should not defend your case. Just like any other criminal case, a first-time offender has the opportunity to take depositions and file defensive motion, such as a Motion to Suppress. Often, a defense attorney will be able to learn more about the case during depositions and point out flaws in the prosecutor’s case. Using these depositions as a defensive tool, it is possible to get charges reduced or a better offer to resolve the case. Remember that in Pinellas County, your lawyer is not permitted to take depositions in a misdemeanor case absent extraordinary circumstances.

Plea Negotiations

If the charges cannot be dropped or reduced and a diversion program is not available, the last step for a criminal defense attorney is to explore a plea deal. In Pinellas County, a prosecutor and/or judge will offer you a better deal if you accept responsibility quickly and try to resolve the case as early as possible. If you delay the case unreasonably while trying to “game the system,” you will likely suffer the consequences. As mentioned above, Pinellas County is very conservative and playing tricks never works.

But, if you have a reputable defense attorney and try to do the right thing, you will likely be rewarded with a more reasonable sentence.

Should I Get a Public Defender for a First-Time Charge?

Sometimes defendants hear from friends that have been through similar charges that they should save their money and just use a public defender. While there are some very good public defenders in Pinellas County, the reality is that they all carry high caseloads and are simply unable to devote as much time to a specific case as a private defense attorney can. While a private lawyer cannot always achieve an outcome better than what a public defender can do, you certainly can increase your odds. At a minimum, a private lawyer will be available to devote more time to your case, meeting with you and answering your questions. The general rule is that if you have access to the funds to hire a private lawyer, always err on the side of caution and spend the money.

Speak to an Attorney Specializing in First-Time Offenders

My philosophy at St. Petersburg Criminal Defense Attorney Sean McQuaid is to fight when you need to fight and accept responsibility when you have made a mistake. For many first-time offenders in Pinellas County, it is advantageous to admit a mistake and try to make things right. If your case strategy is to accept responsibility and try to get leniency, then I advise my clients to differentiate themselves from other defendants. There are literally thousands upon thousands of people moving through the Pinellas County criminal justice system each year. You can imagine how many of those people have been through the system before, continue to make poor choices, or have no guidance with respect to a direction in their case. My clients are different from the rest. I make sure of this by coming up with a strategy and making sure that the strategy is being followed. The prosecutors and judges know that my clients are doing what they should be doing. My clients get rewarded for being proactive and taking their cases seriously. I simply do not represent people who are not willing to do the work necessary to help themselves.

If you are in trouble for the first time in Pinellas County and are in need of a criminal defense attorney, I can help you. If you want to increase the odds that your case will get dropped, reduced, or dismissed, then contact St. Petersburg Criminal Defense Attorney Sean McQuaid for a consultation.