You’ve never been in trouble before. That retail theft or marijuana bust is your first arrest of any kind. You’ve never even blown a stop sign. Doesn’t that help?

The answer is yes and no. A first offender may be eligible for a lighter sentence than a repeat offender. However, your otherwise good character doesn’t really matter when it comes to determining your guilt or innocence.

We’ve all seen the TV shows where the defendant asks a friend to vouch for his good character in order to prove he couldn’t have committed the crime. But it doesn’t work that way in real life. In the legal system, the fact you are a good person does not make it any more or less likely that you committed a particular crime than if you were a bad person. The state still has to show whether you are guilty of a particular offense.

Contrary to TV law, a defense attorney will avoid the character issue until sentencing. At trial, putting on evidence of good character opens the door for the state to put on evidence of bad character. If you say you’re a good family person who goes to church and holds a job, the state can bring up the time you were suspended in high school or that you party a lot.

Good character can be relevant once your guilt is established. While Illinois law imposes certain sentencing guidelines, penalties often become stiffer with subsequent offenses. The court may be more lenient if your offense is clearly a one-time deal. At that point, it might help to talk about all that volunteer work you do or the fact that you always shovel the walk for your elderly neighbor.

If you have questions about this or another related criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email matt@mattkeenanlaw.com.

(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)

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