If you’ve received a citation, or were arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, you may wonder what options you have and what your journey will be like moving forward. A misdemeanor is one of three types of offenses, and carries a penalty more serious than an infraction, but less serious than a felony. The summons or citation will state what the charges against you are, and the scheduled day and time of your initial court appearance.
If you know that you would like to contact a lawyer concerning your charges, you probably want to do so before your initial court hearing (also known as an arraignment). By doing so, your lawyer can guide you on your plea and possible penalties before you are before the judge. If you wish to represent yourself, you will need to familiarize yourself with the law and proceedings surrounding the offense with which you’ve been charged. If you wish to be represented by a lawyer but cannot afford one, you will be given the opportunity to apply for a court-appointed lawyer at your initial hearing.
If you fail to present yourself at your arraignment, you may be charged with an additional offense known as failure to appear. This is a misdemeanor, and if committed, a court will likely issue a warrant for your arrest.
On the day of the arraignment, you should arrive to the courthouse at least 15 minutes early and dress conservatively and professionally. You are often required to check in at the clerk’s office. Before your hearing, you are given a legal rights form which explains your rights before your case is called by the judge.
Once your case is called, the judge will tell you what the charges are against you and the possible penalties from those offenses. Then the judge will ask if you need court-appointed legal representation, which are only available is jail time is a possible penalty. If you do want a court-appointed lawyer, you will have to fill out a form and answer questions about your finances to make sure you qualify.
Next in the hearing, the judge will ask you if you plead guilty or not guilty. If you do not know which to plead, ask the judge to reschedule your initial appearance so you can talk to a lawyer. If you plead not guilty, it will allow you time to talk to a lawyer before your next appearance and requires the prosecution to prove its case. If you plead guilty, you admit that you committed the charges against you, you give up your right to trial, and you give up your right to remain silent. The judge will then decide your sentence.
If you pled not guilty, you have the right to a bench or jury trial. If you choose a bench trial you will only be before a judge and he or she will decide if you are guilty. These typically can take place in an hour or so. In a jury trial, the decision of guilty or not guilty is determined by six members of the community and could last a couple of days.
Before any trial, a pretrial conference takes place. Either you or your attorney will receive a notice of the date and time. You must attend the pretrial conference, and also have the opportunity to discuss plea bargaining with the prosecution. Any other issues that need to be resolved are done so at this conference.
After either a bench trial or jury trial, the judge will decide the sentence. Sometimes the judge will do so the same day as the trial, but sometimes sentencing may be scheduled for a different day. The judge will ask if there is anything you have to say before he or she decides your penalty. For misdemeanors, penalties include jail (usually only up to one year), driver’s license suspension, fines, court costs, community service, probation, and restitution, which is money paid to the victim to cover costs they incurred. Typically the penalty is effective immediately at the time of sentencing.
If you can't appear at the scheduled time, contact your attorney or the court as soon as possible. If the court is contacted ahead of time and if you have a good reason, the court may reschedule your case. The court requires compelling reasons before it excuses a failure to appear.