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The right to timely legal counsel during investigations prior to being charged

The above-posed headline in today's blog post is essentially rhetorical, given that our readers most assuredly know the answer to the question.

Stories abound to cement the point that, when criminal authorities can effectively isolate individuals from meaningful and timely access to a proven legal advocate, unseemly things often happen.

This may occur during a pre-arrest investigation or after an arrest on an unrelated charge.  In either scenario, getting legal counsel is imperative and may save the person from further prosecution or jail.

Make that bad things. Wrong outcomes. Constitutionally infirm results.

Like this one. Imagine a case where an individual is stopped by police for traffic-related infractions.

And then has the jail house door closed on her for 96 days, without any opportunity provided for within that extended timeframe to consult -- even for a single instant -- with an attorney.

What happened to a woman in one state is that, following her arrest, an informant stated that she had purchased prescription drugs from that individual. Prosecutors claimed that damning evidence related to that felony offense was available on a video, which influenced a grand jury to issue a felony indictment against the woman.

There was a slight problem with that: Apparently, no prosecutor ever watched the video, which actually showed the suspect asking to borrow a small sum of money, without referencing drugs at all.

The woman sat in a jail cell for more than three months before an attorney who became familiar with her case convinced prosecutors to review the tape.

That resulted in the immediate dropping of the charges, as well a federal lawsuit filed by the woman citing a litany of constitutional wrongs.

Notably, a judge ruled that none of the woman's legal rights were violated in the case, an outcome that one media account chronicling the tale duly notes "has flummoxed civil liberties advocates."

The court's rationale: The indictment was valid, establishing probable cause, and the Constitution was satisfied by the appearance of a public defender at arraignment. It mattered not that the arraignment date occurred only with commencement of the next court term, 96 days following the woman's arrest.

The ACLU has seen similar infirmities and outcomes across the country, and has sued in multiple states on grounds of shortcomings in the pretrial process.

On the related front of pre-arrest investigation, people who have not yet been arrested but are being targeted for a criminal investigation, whether it is by police or even corporate loss prevention staff, should also get legal counsel BEFORE talking to anyone.  The statements made to these investigators are often damaging and likely resulting in arrest.  

The bottom line in virtually any criminal matter in North Carolina or elsewhere is this: A criminal suspect has a compelling need to consult with an experienced defense attorney at the earliest possible time. And there should be no hesitation in asking for authorities to promptly respond to that constitutional right.

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