What happens when someone is charged with a misdemeanor?

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 a felony arrest, most individuals charged with misdemeanors are detained 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 an attorney.

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. You cannot assume 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 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 as possible after your failure to appear. If you do not act 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 District Attorney; other times, the decision 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.

Only by knowing the particular facts of your case, your prior criminal record, if any, and your current situation, is it possible to accurately advise you about your case.

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.

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.

At trial, the prosecution must 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.

 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. It is important to keep the court informed of your current address. It is also important that you read and respond to all communications you receive from the court. If there is anything you do not understand, call your attorney.

Find out what happens on our Misdemeanor Information page.

Show All Answers

1. Are Deputy Public Defenders real attorneys?
2. How do I get an attorney to represent me?
3. Can I get advice from an attorney before I appear in court?
4. How do I contact my attorney?
5. I forgot the name of my attorney. How can I find out who is representing me?
6. I forgot where my court is located. How can I find out where I'm supposed to appear?
7. I can't afford an attorney. Will I have to pay to be represented by the Public Defender's Office?
8. How much can I earn and still be eligible for the services of an attorney?
9. What if the Public Defender cannot represent me?
10. Are all "appointed attorneys" employees of the Public Defender's Office?
11. What is "O.R."?
12. What is bail?
13. When will the judge set bail and/or consider an O.R. release?
14. What happens when someone is charged with a felony?
15. What happens when someone is charged with a misdemeanor?
16. Will the Public Defender represent me if I am a resident of another state?
17. Will the Public Defender's Office represent me if I am a citizen of another country?
18. Will the Public Defender's Office represent me in an extradition hearing?
19. My English is limited. How can I get an interpreter to assist me or my witnesses?
20. I like a certain attorney. Can I choose who represents me?
21. I don’t like my attorney. How do I get a new one?
22. Who is eligible for drug treatment within the criminal justice system under Proposition 36?
23. I have heard about the success of drug treatment courts. How do they differ from regular criminal courts?
24. What happens when someone under the age of 18 is charged with a crime?
25. My child, who is under 18, has been arrested and needs drug treatment, mental health treatment or specialized education. Can the Public Defender help?
26. Will the Public Defender's Office represent me in the appellate courts?
27. Will the Public Defender represent me in a habeas corpus proceeding?
28. What is an expungement?
29. Who is eligible for an expungement?
30. When is an expungement available?
31. What will an expungement do for me?
32. Does the Public Defender's Office have access to any police officers or investigators who can look for evidence that will help me talk to witnesses in my case?
33. I know my attorney can't repeat anything I say in confidence. How can I be sure that what I say to a Public Defender investigator or paralegal will be kept confidential?
34. If the police contact me, do I have to speak with them?
35. What should I do if the police want to search me or my belongings?
36. I want to sue the Police Department. Will the Public Defender represent me?
37. I was treated unfairly by the judge in my case, and I want to sue the court. Will the Public Defender's Office represent me?
38. I am the victim of a crime. Will the Public Defender represent me?
39. I need an attorney to help me in a civil case (like divorce, landlord/tenant dispute, debt payment, bankruptcy, child custody). Does the Public Defender handle that type of case?
40. How do I get a certificate of rehabilitation?
41. What is Proposition 64?