In California, a misdemeanor offense carries a maximum penalty of one year in the county jail and/or a $1,000.00 fine, plus state costs and penalty assessments. Certain misdemeanors carry adverse consequences affecting your license to drive, ability to own/possess firearms, sex offender registration, immigration status, professional licenses, and more. Accordingly, any person under criminal investigation or formally charged with a misdemeanor should consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer before making any decisions. Certain hasty decisions might have drastic and unintended consequences that cannot be undone. You must know all available options before making such an important decision.
Brief Overview of a Misdemeanor Case:
First, law enforcement will conduct an investigation. This can be a simple traffic stop or a lengthy investigation lasting for several months. The results of that investigation become the official “Police Report”. The report is submitted to the local prosecutor’s office for review; in most California jurisdictions, the prosecutor is the District Attorney of that particular county. At this point, a case may be charged or rejected, depending on the assessment by the District Attorney. If more information is needed by the reviewing District Attorney, the case is referred back to the law enforcement agency for additional investigation. The decision to file or reject a case is done on a case by case basis, considering the state of the evidence.
If a case is filed, the first court appearance is called the arraignment. The arraignment serves several important purposes:
- To formally advise you of the charges filed by the District Attorney.
- You’re advised of your right to be represented by an attorney for the duration of your case.
- Enter a plea. Common pleas at arraignment are not guilty, guilty, or no contest.
- The determination of custody status. For some cases, the judge may leave you out of custody on your own recognizance. Other cases may require posting bail (money and/or property) to ensure your appearance at the next court date. My goal, whenever possible, is to keep you out of custody from the beginning.
Future court dates are set at the arraignment, moving the case closer to a resolution by plea bargain or trial. The next court date might be as soon as a few weeks, or as far out as a few months, depending on the legal issues involved and overall case complexity and strategy. The time in-between court appearances is utilized to gather all relevant evidence and assess the strengths and weaknesses in the case. If there are exculpatory witnesses or other evidence necessary for the defense of the case, those witnesses are interviewed and the evidence is collected. Defense investigation is very crucial to every case.
At this point, preparing legal motions to challenge the seizure or use of evidence may also be appropriate. Some issues must be litigated during trial, while others may be addressed beforehand. Many cases are won or lost at this critical stage, and it can shape the issues and direction of potential defenses at trial.
One of the next court appearances and first opportunities to discuss the merits of a misdemeanor case is the pretrial conference. This is the time when I discuss your case with the Judge and the District Attorney. The goal is to negotiate a favorable plea bargain on your case, whether or not the case ultimately goes to trial. By law, the results of this conference must be conveyed to the client (regardless of whether or not the offer is favorable). If the offer is acceptable, the case may proceed towards sentencing. If not, it gives an idea as to where the case stands and can be useful in determining the pros and cons of proceeding to trial.