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A misdemeanor is generally defined as a crime that is punishable by fine and/or a maximum imprisonment in a County jail for one year or less.
Reporting the Crime and Investigation
When a crime is committed, the victim(s), or witnesses to the crime, contact the local police to report what happened. The police investigate the crime by taking statements from the victim(s) and/or witnesses, collecting evidence, and interviewing suspects. Additional investigation can be done as necessary. After investigating the crime, if enough information is available, the police may arrest a suspect, issue a citation to appear in court, seek a warrant of arrest, or request that a letter is sent to the suspect once charges are filed.
The Filing of Charges
The police will present the results of their investigation, including any written reports, to the prosecutor’s office for review. A Deputy City Prosecutor will review the reports, evidence, and the defendant’s criminal or traffic record, and decide what, if any, charges to actually file against the defendant. Occasionally, a Deputy City Prosecutor may send the case back to the police agency for further investigation, refer the matter for felony consideration, or reject the matter.
A prosecutor will file charges if there is reason to believe that probable cause exists that a crime was committed and that the crime can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. The charging document, which includes the offenses alleged against the defendant, is called the “complaint.” The complaint is then filed with the court.
The Court Process
Once the complaint is filed, the defendant must appear in court. If the defendant fails to appear for this initial court appearance, the court will issue an arrest warrant. This first appearance in court is called the “arraignment”. The purpose of the arraignment is to advise the defendant of the charges brought and of his or her Constitutional rights. These rights include the right to a jury or court trial, the right to an appointed attorney, and the presumption of innocence. At the arraignment, the defendant is required to enter a “plea” to the charges; the plea usually is a “guilty”, “no contest”, or “not guilty”.
If the defendant is in custody at the arraignment, the court will usually set bail in an amount necessary to protect the public and ensure the defendant’s return to court. If the defendant can post bail, then he or she will be released and ordered to return to court on another date. If the defendant cannot post bail, then he or she will remain in custody. In many misdemeanor cases, the defendant is released on his or her own recognizance. The judge can also impose conditions on the defendant’s release, such as “no contact” with the victim. If the defendant pleads “guilty” at this stage, a sentence is generally given immediately.
Following the arraignment, if a defendant pleads “not guilty,” the matter may be scheduled for a pre-trial hearing. At a pre-trial hearing, there are case discussions which can involve the Judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The focus is on the nature of the evidence and the possibility of resolving the case short of trial. Depending on the nature of the case, there may be pretrial hearings on Constitutional issues (confessions, searches, identification, etc.). These issues are presented to the court through written “motions” (e.g., Motion to Suppress Evidence). The judge must determine whether evidence will be admitted or suppressed at the defendant’s trial, whether there is some legal reason why the defendant should not be tried, or decide other ground rules for trial.
A defendant is entitled to a misdemeanor jury trial within 30 days of the arraignment (if in custody) or 45 days if out of custody. A trial may be scheduled at a reasonable time thereafter this if the defendant waives his right to a timely trial.
At a trial, it is the prosecutor’s job is to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt with admissible evidence. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence. In fact, the defendant need not present any evidence and may simply challenge the accuracy of the prosecution’s case.
The prosecutor will give an opening statement, question the victim and/or witnesses, present evidence, and deliver a closing argument. The defendant’s attorney may also give an opening statement, question witnesses, present evidence, and deliver a closing argument. The defendant may, but is not required to, testify.
Based on the evidence presented, the jury will then determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found not guilty, the case ends. If the defendant is found guilty, a sentencing date will be set.
If a guilty verdict is returned, the defendant will be sentenced within a reasonable time. With the defendant’s consent, sentencing may be done immediately following conviction. Most often, sentences are at the judge’s discretion. Some charges may require a minimum sentence. The victim of a crime committed by the defendant has a right to be notified and may also speak at the sentencing hearing to inform the court of the crime’s impact.
A judge will most often consider the nature of the crime and the defendant in determining an appropriate sentence. A sentence typically includes orders by the court to complete one or more of the following: probation; jail time; a fine; community service; counseling; treatment programs; restitution to the victim; and any other appropriate terms and conditions of probation.
If the defendant does not complete his or her terms and conditions of probation and sentencing, the court may hold a hearing for a probation violation against the defendant. If a probation violation is found, the court may impose additional fines, custody time, or other sanctions on the defendant. The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm.