How a Criminal Defense Lawyer Reads and Interprets Certificates of Disposition

How a Criminal Defense Lawyer Reads and Interprets Certificates of Disposition

As a criminal defense lawyer, certificates of disposition are an important tool I use to understand the full history and current status of a client’s criminal record. When a potential client comes to me with a prior conviction, pending charge, or arrest, one of the first things I do is obtain certificates of disposition for each case.These documents, obtained directly from the court, provide me with the critical details I need to advise my client and build their defense strategy. Here’s a look at what certificates of disposition are, why they’re important, and how I read and analyze the information they provide as a criminal defense attorney.

What Is a Certificate of Disposition?

A certificate of disposition, sometimes called a certified disposition, is an official court record summarizing the outcome and current status of a criminal case 1. 

It is issued by the court where the case was adjudicated and contains important details like:

  • The charges filed against the defendant
  • The disposition (outcome) of each charge – whether dismissed, acquitted, convicted, etc.
  • The sentence imposed, if convicted
  • The current status – pending, closed, under appeal, etc.

The document is “certified” meaning it contains an official seal or stamp from the court clerk verifying its authenticity 2. 

This allows me to rely on the information when advising clients and developing legal strategy.

Why Certificates of Disposition Are Critical for Criminal Defense

As a criminal defense lawyer, certificates of disposition help me in several important ways:

Confirming a Client’s Criminal Record

When a potential client discloses a prior conviction or arrest, I need to verify the details. The disposition provides me with an authoritative record straight from the court, allowing me to confirm my client’s criminal history. This is vital for giving accurate legal advice.

Understanding the Full Context of a Case

The disposition contains key details that provide context and fill in gaps about a prior case. For example, it shows what the initial charges were, how they were resolved (dismissed, amended, etc.), and the final outcome. This context is invaluable.

Determining Possible Immigration Consequences

For non-citizen clients, the disposition can help reveal potential immigration issues 3. 

It provides details needed to assess offenses that may trigger removal, inadmissibility, or other consequences. This allows me to advise clients appropriately.

Evaluating Options for Record Clearing

The current status listed on a disposition helps me identify convictions or charges that may be eligible for record clearing remedies. This includes options like expungement, sealing, pardons, and non-disclosure orders.

Crafting Strong Legal Defenses

By studying the dispositions from a client’s prior cases, I gain insights that allow me to craft targeted defense strategies for new charges. I can also use the records to impeach witness testimony or poke holes in the prosecution’s case.

How I Carefully Analyze and Interpret Certificates of Disposition

When reviewing dispositions for a client, I don’t just glance at the documents. I meticulously examine them to extract every detail that may impact their case. Here are some of the key things I look for:

The Charges Filed

I carefully note all the initial charges filed against my client – both felonies and misdemeanors. The number and nature of the charges can significantly impact the legal strategy. Multiple charges give prosecutors more bargaining power during plea negotiations, for example 4.

Amended or Added Charges

I check to see if any charges were added or amended during the course of prosecution. Added charges can indicate my client did something to further implicate themselves. Amended charges may signal prosecutorial overreach that I can challenge.

Dismissed, Dropped, or Acquitted Charges

I make careful note if any charges were dismissed, dropped, no billed by a grand jury, or my client was acquitted at trial. This helps demonstrate weaknesses in the prosecution’s case that I may be able to exploit.

Convicted Charges and Level of Offense

I confirm which charges resulted in a conviction and the level – felony, misdemeanor, etc. This establishes the exact offenses on my client’s record. Higher-level convictions bring harsher consequences that impact legal strategy.

Sentences Imposed

The disposition provides key sentencing details, including fines, probation terms, incarceration time, suspended sentences, and more. This reveals the full punitive outcome, which can influence the defense strategy for a new case.

Status of Completion

I confirm whether my client completed all portions of their sentence, including probation, parole, treatment programs, community service, and payment of fines. Completion can sometimes allow a conviction to be cleared from their record.

Appeals Filed

If any appeals were filed, I review the status and outcome. Pending appeals can sometimes delay or overturn convictions in beneficial ways for my client.

Current Status of the Case

Finally, I verify whether the case is closed or still pending. Open cases require different strategic considerations. For example, asserting 5th Amendment rights if the pending case is relevant to the new charges.

Requesting Critical Documents Beyond the Disposition

While dispositions contain a wealth of useful information, there are often other court documents I need to fully understand a prior case. Some key records I frequently request include:

  • Arrest reports – to examine the police narrative and initial facts
  • Plea agreements – to see concessions made by the prosecution
  • Trial transcripts – to review witness testimony and other evidence
  • Appellate briefs – to study the legal arguments and issues

These supplementary documents, combined with the disposition, provide the complete picture I need to build an airtight defense.

Leveraging the Details to Benefit My Client

As you can see, certificates of disposition are far more than just a formality. The information they provide is crucial for me to counsel clients, construct strong legal arguments, and negotiate optimal outcomes.By combing through every detail and cross-referencing with other records, I can leverage the disposition strategically to protect my client’s rights, minimize penalties, and achieve the best resolution. While each case is unique, a disposition provides the blueprint I need to build an effective defense.