A misdemeanor offense may be less serious than a felony offense, but it still may be punishable by jail time and should be taken seriously. Each state has its own laws governing misdemeanor categories and court procedures. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor crime, the outcome of your case depends on the individual facts, whether you have a criminal record and how you handle the case. For example, you can plead guilty and try to negotiate a lesser charge, or plead not guilty and go to trial.
What Is a Misdemeanor?
In the U.S., there are three categories of offenses, depending on the severity of the crime. The most serious crimes are felonies, the least serious are infractions, and misdemeanors, which are more serious than infractions, but less serious than felonies. Generally, misdemeanors are crimes punishable by a fine and up to one year in jail, such as assault, shoplifting, trespassing or driving without a license. Some states divide misdemeanors into three classes: high or gross misdemeanors, ordinary misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors, with the longest jail sentence given to high misdemeanors.
Each state has its own criminal code, so what is considered a misdemeanor in one state may not be a misdemeanor in another. For example, jaywalking is a Class C misdemeanor in Texas, but considered a minor infraction in most other states.
First Court Appearance
When you're charged with a misdemeanor, you receive a citation or a complaint and a summons, which includes details of the offense, the date and time of your first court appearance, and the name and address of the court you must attend. If you're under 18, a parent or guardian must go to all court proceedings with you.
Going to court for a misdemeanor begins with an arraignment. When you arrive at the courthouse, the clerk will give you a form that tells you what your legal rights are. When your case is called, the judge will ask if you have read the form and understand your rights. The judge will also tell you what you are charged with and the possible penalties. You have the right to be represented by a lawyer, and if you can’t afford one, the court can appoint one for you.
At the arraignment, you can plead guilty, plead not guilty or ask the judge to reschedule the arraignment to give you the chance to consult a lawyer. A guilty plea means you admit to the offense, which gives up your right to a trial. The next step is for the judge to decide your sentence. If you plead not guilty, your case goes to trial.
How to Get Out of a Misdemeanor
It may not be possible to get out of a misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case, the evidence against you, and any previous criminal record. However, many outcomes are possible.
A pretrial conference takes place before the trial. This is an opportunity to resolve the matter – known as plea bargaining – before going back to court. What happens at a pretrial conference for a misdemeanor depends on how you plan to handle the charge and how serious the offense is. For example, if you have been charged with an offense that involves hurting or potentially hurting another person, such as an assault or a DWI (driving while intoxicated), your case may require an evaluation. This postpones sentencing until after the evaluation. If no evaluation is required, and you reach an agreement, you may be sentenced at the pretrial conference.
Your lawyer can use the pretrial conference to present evidence in your favor and negotiate with the prosection. It may be possible to minimize your sentence or get the charges against you reduced or even dropped. You may have to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to avoid jail time, or take a deferred or suspended sentence.
Going to trial
If the pretrial conference doesn't go in your favor, and going to trial is the only option, it's important to help your lawyer build a strong defense for you by providing her with detailed information, all relevant documentary evidence and a list of possible witnesses.
Be prepared and organized before the trial to ensure you have the best chance of answering the questions the judge may have for you, challenging the charges against you, and proving that you are not guilty of the charge.
Sentencing After a Misdemeanor Conviction
A judge in a misdemeanor case has a range of penalties she can impose. If you are found guilty, you may be able to minimize your sentence or get an alternative to jail time. Alternatives include community service; probation – an order that suspends a jail sentence for a set period of time after which charges may be dropped if you stay out of trouble; or restitution, which is a way of compensating victims for any financial harms that you caused.
If this is your first criminal offense, you are steadily employed and have a family to support, these facts will support your request for an alternative to jail time.