I’ve been charged with a misdemeanor. What do I do now?

What is a misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors are crimes that are punishable by up to one year in jail. If you plead guilty or are found guilty of a misdemeanor, jail may not be the only punishment. Misdemeanors can result in penalties, fines, probation, restitution and community service. If you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor, the law requires you to be considered innocent until the prosecuting attorney proves you are guilty of the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt. If you cannot afford an attorney, you are entitled to a public defender (although the standards for a public defender may vary from state to state or even from county to county.

What’s the criminal process for misdemeanor charges?

A misdemeanor criminal charge may start out as a citation from a police officer or may come as a complaint from the prosecuting attorney. Regardless of how you are charged, you should receive a document that sets the time and date for your arraignment or first appearance. Do not miss your hearing date, otherwise you may have a warrant issued for your arrest and you may have to face additional criminal charges (such as a failure to appear). If you have a criminal defense lawyer, he or she will appear with you to make sure you are afforded your constitutional rights during each step of the process.

At your arraignment you will be notified of your rights, the charges against you and the possible penalties you face if you plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial. If you don’t have your own criminal defense attorney, you will be given a chance to have a public defender, but only if you quality. Then you will have the chance to plead either guilty or not guilty.

  • Your Rights: In many jurisdictions, you will be given a form with a list of your rights. When your case is called, you may ask the judge to clarify anything you don’t understand.
  • Charges and Penalties: The judge will list the charges and potential penalties you are facing to make sure you understand the seriousness of the charges. Acknowledging that you understand the charges does not mean you are pleading guilty to the charges.
  • Legal Representation: You have the right to your own lawyer. If you cannot afford your own legal counsel, you may quality for a court-appointed attorney. A court-appointed attorney may be provided to you if i) you are eligible financially, and ii) jail time is a possibility. To maintain control of the process and ensure that you get the right attention, a privately retained lawyer is usually a better option that a public defender. In many states, public defenders are caring, hardworking lawyers, but they usually carry a very heavy caseload and may not have the same time or energy to devote to your case.
  • Your Plea: Pleading guilty automatically waives your right to a trial, your right to remain silent and your right to have the state prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If in doubt about your plea, many legal experts suggest that you either ask to reschedule your arraignment so you can speak to a lawyer, or enter a not guilty to buy yourself time to evaluate potential defenses and get a lawyer to advise you properly.
  • You Plead Guilty: If you plead guilty and you are facing considerable potential jail time, the judge may not sentence you that same day. If the judge proceeds to sentencing, however, the judge may allow you to make a statement on your behalf. You may face fines, probation, jail time and other penalties. Whatever your sentencing may be, it may be effective immediately, so be prepared to be handcuffed and lead to jail if you plead guilty to a crime that usually results in jail time.
  • You Plead Not Guilty: The judge will ask you whether you want a court trial where the judge decides the case or a jury trial where 6-12 strangers decide the case. Your next hearing date will be set (which may include both a trial date and a pretrial date).

Being charged with a misdemeanor can be a frustrating and arduous process. Having a criminal defense attorney on your side can make the process easier to understand and will keep you from making costly mistakes that can cost you money, time and freedom.