The Misdemeanor Process

Steps in the Misdemeanor ProcessMisdemeanors - for example, first time DUI, reckless driving, petty theft, minor in possession of alcohol, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, simple assault or battery - come with a range of penalties, including up to a year in county jail, up to $1,000 in fines, work project, counseling, and probation.

A misdemeanor charge follows specific steps as it winds its way through the criminal justice system. This process is more elaborate than for an infraction, though less complicated than for a felony.

In general, a misdemeanor follows these steps:

Arrest After the police or other law enforcement personnel have determined that sufficient evidence of a crime exists, an arrest is made. Each arrest must reference one or more specific sections of California law. For example, a DUI arrest is charged as a violation of Vehicle Code sections 23152 (a) and (b). In some instances, an arrest will be made in the field, such as when a police officer witnesses someone stealing a car or vandalizing property. In other cases, an arrest warrant is issued after an investigation has brought to light sufficient evidence. The incident reports are then handed over to the DA's office for the filing of a criminal "complaint".

Arraignment The defendant appears before a judge to hear the "complaint" - the charges - and to enter a guilty or not-guilty plea. If the defendant does not respond, that silence is interpreted as a plea of not guilty. The judge makes sure that the defendant is aware of his/her constitutional rights and sets bail. Misdemeanors generally have low bail requirements, and defendants are often allowed to leave on their own recognizance.

Pre-Trial Conferences and Motions This pre-trial phase is when most cases are settled through plea agreements. The district attorney's office must provide the defense lawyer with all relevant evidence. This information is known as "discovery". The defense lawyer may file motions - e.g., to exclude specific evidence or testimony if the case goes to trial - that challenge the prosecution's version of events and bolster the defendant's case. The goal of these back-and-forth negotiations is to have the charges dismissed or get a plea agreement that is acceptable to the defendant given the circumstances of the incident.

Trial Our Constitution guarantees each person a trial in front of a jury of our peers. The jury's job is to listen to evidence presented in what is referred to as an "adversarial" system in which the prosecution attempts to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty is of the charges, while the defense represents the defendant's interests and explains what happened from the defendant's point of view. The defense lawyer is the defendant's advocate in trial, making sure that the defendant's constitutional rights are protected and that any evidence presented is relevant and accurate. The jury presumes that the defendant is innocent until the evidence convinces them beyond a reasonable doubt that he/she is guilty. A conviction requires all twelve jurors to vote "guilty". An acquittal requires all twelve to vote "not guilty". A split vote results in a hung jury.

Sentencing A "not guilty" verdict means that the defendant is free to leave. If the jury comes back with a guilty verdict, the judge must determine the appropriate sentence. (Note that the jury is not involved in sentencing. Their service is finished once they return a verdict.) Judges have discretion in sentencing for misdemeanor cases within the parameters set out by the relevant California codes.

The Importance of a Quality Defense LawyerThe complexity of the criminal justice system requires defendants to have quality, experienced legal representation to ensure that their rights are protected and their version of events is heard. Call me at (916) 442-1200 for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.