A misdemeanor is defined as a crime that is punishable by fine and/or imprisonment in a county jail for one year or less. As in most criminal cases, a misdemeanor prosecution starts with an arrest. However, unlike of a felony arrest, most individuals charged with misdemeanors are detained only for a short time before they are released by police after promising to appear at their next court date by signing a citation that is known as a "promise to appear."
The police reports alleging illegal acts are then presented to the District Attorney who decides what charges, if any, should be filed. Occasionally, instead of filing misdemeanor charges, the prosecutor may choose to file a complaint alleging an infraction. Individuals who are accused of infractions cannot be sentenced to jail, nor are they entitled to the appointment of counsel at public expense.
Appearing in Court
Any person who has been arrested and then released from custody and given a court date and time must appear in court on that date, at that specific time! Failure to appear will result in the issuance of a warrant and possible arrest. Unfortunately, you cannot assume that the court will understand that you had to work that day, you overslept, or your child was sick. If you have failed to appear in court when required, it is always better to contact court services and arrange to surrender, rather than to wait until the police find and arrest you. You have a much better chance of walking out of the courtroom if you appear in court as soon a possible after your failure to appear. If you do not act very quickly to appear in court, additional criminal charges may be filed. You should notify your attorney when you will appear.
It is not uncommon for a person to be arrested on misdemeanor charges, then released, only to appear in court and discover that no charges have been filed. Occasionally, this is because the charges have been rejected by the prosecution; other times, the decision as to where the District Attorney wants to file charges might have been delayed.
Once a case has been filed, the first step in the criminal process is arraignment. This is usually the time the defendant first appears in court, is informed of the charges, and enters a plea. The attorney who handles misdemeanor arraignments in that particular court will discuss the case with you, and a plea will be entered. The usual pleas are "not guilty," "guilty," or "no contest." If you are in custody at arraignment on a misdemeanor charge, your attorney may make a motion to dismiss based on failure of the police reports to establish that a crime has been committed. If you have been charged for something you simply did not do -- or the charges are far more serious than the offense for which you are actually responsible -- or your attorney feels there is insufficient evidence to convict you, he or she might advise you to take the case to trial.
In misdemeanor cases that are not likely to go to trial, it is not unusual for your attorney to settle the case on your behalf and with your consent, either at arraignment, or at a pretrial hearing which is usually held a couple of weeks later. Some misdemeanor cases settle for a fine and probation, without any jail time. However, some misdemeanor charges can carry a sentence of as much as one year in the county jail (a few have a mandatory minimum jail sentence) as the possible punishment.
Predicting Your Case
Only by knowing the particular facts of your case, your prior criminal record, if any, and your current situation, is it possible to accurately predict how your case will settle.
A misdemeanor case that is not going to be resolved with a plea must generally go to trial within 30 days if the defendant was in custody at the arraignment -- or within 45 days if the defendant is out of custody. Cases are often continued to allow defense attorneys to gather the necessary evidence and interview any possible witnesses. Before trial, the defense attorney may make various motions, including a motion to suppress unlawfully obtained evidence by the police and motions for the prosecutor or the police to disclose evidence which might help the defense."
Trial by Jury
An adult criminal defendant has the right to a trial by a jury. This is where 12 jurors, who are called "the finders of fact," listen to all the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense and decide what is proved and what is not. The judge's role in a jury trial is to make sure that both the prosecution and the defense adhere to all the rules of evidence when presenting their case to the jury.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
At trial, the prosecution must try to prove the client's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. All 12 jurors must agree in order to either convict or acquit. If the jury cannot agree, a "mistrial" will be declared by the court, and the case may be tried again before a different jury, it may be dismissed, or a case settlement may be agreed upon by the prosecution and the defense.
A defendant can also decide to have a judge hear the case, instead of a jury; this is called a "court trial." For this to happen, the prosecution must also agree. In a court trial, the prosecution still has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but this time, the judge is the "finder of fact" and must decide whether or not the defendant is guilty, while also making certain that both attorneys are abiding by all the rules of evidence.
If a defendant is found guilty, the judge will then impose a sentence. The possible range of sentence, which is set by various laws, may range from no jail and probation, to confinement in the county jail for up to one year.
Right to Appeal
Defendants who have been convicted after a trial have the right to appeal their conviction. This process is started by the trial attorney who, upon request of the client, will file a notice of appeal in the trial court within 30 days of the imposition of sentence. An attorney who specializes in appeals will then be appointed by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. It is important to keep that court informed of your current address. It is also important that you read and respond to all communications you receive from the other court. If there is anything you do not understand, call your attorney.