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 What to Expect if You are Charged with a Misdemeanor

Gross Misdemeanors:  are punishable by a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail and/or a fine of up to five thousand dollars. Gross misdemeanors include crimes of domestic violence such as assault and serious driving offenses including driving under the influence and reckless driving, theft under $750 and a variety of violent and property crimes that do not rise to the level of felony offenses.

Misdemeanors:  are punishable by a maximum sentence of ninety days in jail and/or a fine of up to one thousand dollars. Misdemeanor offenses include disorderly conduct, driving violations such as driving with a suspended license in the third degree, and other crimes.

What are my Constitutional Rights? All persons accused of any crime or traffic offense that might result in a jail sentence have the following rights:

  • To have a lawyer present at all hearings
  • To have a lawyer appointed at public expense if the defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer
  • To represent themselves without a lawyer
  • To a public and speedy jury trial
  • To cross-examine any witness who testifies against the you
  • To call witnesses to testify on their behalf, and have the court compel their attendance
  • To testify or not testify, if you choose not to, no one can make you testify;
  • To appeal to the Superior Court if convicted after a trial

What is an Arraignment? The arraignment is generally your first appearance in court on the citation or charge.  If you were summoned to court, you will appear in person at the court.  If you were arrested and have not posted a bond, you will remain at the Jail and will see the Judge through the jail video system.   This is the 1st appearance in court on a criminal charge where a defendant is advised of the nature of the charges, their constitutional rights, and enters a plea (typically a not guilty plea is entered) The Judge will inform you of the charge and explain it.  Next it will be confirmed that you understand your constitutional rights and finally the maximum punishment and mandatory minimum punishment, if any, will be stated. 

The plea determines how the case will move forward. At arraignment, unless the defendant appears with a lawyer, the court advises the defendant on the record of the right to trial by jury, if applicable, and of the right to be represented by a lawyer and to have an appointed lawyer if the defendant cannot afford one.

Bail and conditions of release will be discussed and set by the court.  For a person charged with a non-violent offense with little to no criminal history, it is not uncommon to be released on personal recognizance ("PR") and other conditions such as a no-contact order or a requirement not to drink alcohol or use drugs.  However, if the offense involves behavior that endangers others, bail and other more stringent conditions may be imposed as a condition of any release to the community.  

If I Plead Guilty at Arraignment what will Happen?  (Note this is NOT Advisable) At an arraignment hearing, most people charged with a criminal offense enter a not guilty plea.  This allows more time to acquire an attorney, review the police reports, investigate the charge, and consider possible diversion options or sentencing recommendation of the prosecutor.  Once more information is provided, a person may decide to enter a guilty plea- typically at a later pre-trial hearing. If you plead guilty it means you admit the charge and elements to prove the charge.  By pleading guilty you waive your constitutional rights and in most cases will be sentenced right then.  However, you may speak on your behalf at sentencing.  The Judge will then usually review the police report and sentence you. 

What Happens if I Plead Not Guilty? A not guilty plea is a denial of the charge and none of your constitutional rights are waived unless you expressly wish to do so.   You are presumed innocent and the prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a subsequent trial.  

After your arraignment, the next hearing will be a pre-trial hearing where the prosecutor will be present.  You and your lawyer are required to be present.  It is not uncommon for a defense attorney to continue this hearing once or more to allow sufficient time to investigate your case and negotiate with the prosecutor.  This also allows the attorney to find out more information about possible diversion options that could help you keep the crime off your record.  At a pre-trial hearing, motions may be heard and a jury or bench trial may be set.  Information about all evidence in the case and witnesses names is exchanged.  

Pretrial Conference (Criminal Proceeding) The pretrial conference is scheduled upon a plea of not guilty and establishes if the case needs to be set for a motion hearing prior to trial, or if it will proceed directly to trial. It also establishes if the case will be a trial by jury or bench trial (before the judge only). Additionally, the defendant must indicate if they are proceeding pro se (without attorney representation) or if they are represented by private counsel or by public defender.

Motion Hearing At any time in the course of a criminal case, either party may bring a motion. Typical motions include motions to suppress evidence, motions to modify or rescind no contact orders, motions to compel discovery, and motions to dismiss.

Criminal Trial  The trial is the process that determines the outcome of a criminal case when a plea of not guilty has been entered. There are generally 5 phases of the jury trial process:

  • Jury selection
  • Opening statements
  • Presentation of evidence
  • Closing statements
  • Jury deliberations

A defendant can waive his/her right to a jury trial and opt for a trial before the judge only - this is referred to as a bench trial.

Sentencing (Criminal Proceeding) Upon a finding by the court of guilty on a criminal violation this proceeding is the precise determination of the sentence which may include:

  • Any probation or special conditions of sentence
  • Costs
  • Fine
  • Jail term
  • Restitution

What happens if I am Sentenced to Jail? In most cases, you will not be taken directly to jail.  Instead you will be given a period of time in which to complete your commitment.  Jail alternatives such as electronic home detention and community service are commonly imposed instead of jail if you do not have criminal history.  

What Alternatives are There for Serving a Jail Sentence? There are several alternatives to serving time in jail.  In some cases, jail time may be converted into community service.  You may also be allowed to serve your time on home detention.  The court also utilizes technology such as a skin-alcohol monitoring ("SCRAM") device, GPS device, and drug testing to ensure that the community is protected and electronic home detention time is served appropriately.

What if I can't pay my entire fine at Sentencing? If you can't pay your fine in full at the time of the hearing you will be required to sign a promise to pay agreement to pay the fine within 60 days.  Failure to pay fines may result in late fees, a possible suspension of your driver's license and assignment of the account to a collection agency. If you wish to make monthly payments, you may sign up with Signal Credit for monthly installments.  Ask your attorney for guidance in this area.

Keep Your Address Up-to-Date: It is very important that you keep your address up to date with any courts you have cases in and the Department of Licensing (DOL).  The court and the DOL use that address information to contact you.  If you don't update your address, you may be missing important notices that could negatively impact you.  If you fail to respond to a court summons on a criminal case that is sent to an out-of-date address, a warrant could issue for your arrest.  

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.