What’re the Phases of a Misdemeanor Case? What Happens When?

For anyone who has never faced a criminal case, the sequence of events in a misdemeanor case can be confusing and sometimes, counterintuitive.  Television and movies often deal with felony cases and the portrayal of how things proceed is often misleading or just wrong.

Every criminal case begins with some police contact with the accused or some investigation of the accused.  When the accused is arrested, an arraignment must follow within 48 hours (not including weekends and holidays) unless the accused is released on his or her own recognizance (OR) or the accused posts bail as collateral to a promise to appear in court on some future date.

If the accused is not arrested, the police may seek an arrest warrant from a judge or the prosecution may simply file a complaint against the accused, now better termed a defendant.  The police or the prosecutor’s office may or may not provide notice, via a letter, to the accused that a complaint has been filed against him or her.  If the accused does not appear in court for the arraignment, the judge will issue a bench warrant for the defendant.

The arraignment is a hearing wherein the accused is told or informed (by reading) the allegations against him and asked to enter a plea of not guilty, guilty or no contest.  The arraignment is also the time when the prosecutor provides defense counsel with the police report, in whole or in part, videos (the “dash cam,” the body-cams, store security films, i.e., if they exist), audio recordings (i.e. a 911 call or a witness interview), photographs (including booking photographs), supplemental reports, the dispatch log and the criminal history of the defendant.  There also may be chemical testing results, i.e. laboratory results or a blood alcohol test results, either from breath or blood.  All these documents about the case facts are collectively termed “discovery.”

The arraignment is also when the prosecution may convey a plea bargain.  The judge may also review the conditions of OR release or bail (the judge can increase bail or decrease it).  When the case involves domestic violence, the arraignment can be the time to request that the protective order allow peaceful contact (Level One) between the defendant and the victim, i.e. if the two are spouses or otherwise live together.

If the case does not resolve at the arraignment, the judge will usually set a pre-trial hearing next and may specify a future date for trial.

A pre-trial hearing is usually a few weeks after the arraignment, especially if the client is out of custody (if the client remains in custody, the pre-trial may be in just a few days).  The pre-trial hearing is meant for the prosecution and defense counsel to discuss the issues, exchange discovery (defense counsel may have a video or documents to provide the prosecution), plea bargain and discuss going to trial.
 
It is not unusual for there to be several pre-trial hearings, wherein defendant may seek the judge’s ruling on a motion of some type.  This may be a motion to suppress evidence that was unlawfully obtained, a motion for civil compromise to dismiss the case, a motion for a line-up, a motion for appointment of an expert, a motion for a blood split analysis, a motion for judicial diversion (in Los Angeles County only), a motion for discovery or a non-statutory motion to dismiss.  There are many other types of motions, but these are some of the more common misdemeanor motions.

Defense counsel may also prepare and deliver a Defense Position Letter with a Mitigation Packet to request a certain plea bargain, by arguing the law, the facts and showing that the client is a “Good Guy” or “Good Gal.”  Such a letter may include showing the prosecutor that our client attended a certain number of classes or meetings, has a professional license, has immigration issues or has an alibi for the time of the alleged crime.

If the parties cannot resolve the case through a plea bargain, defendant may plead “in the open” to have the judge sentence him or her.  This can be a good thing to do when there are just one or two charges and the judge seems to care about the defendant, but it is generally an unwise thing to do when there are three or more charges and the judge seems to favor the prosecution.

If no plea bargain can be reached and pleading in the open is not a viable option, the only remaining path to take is to proceed to trial, either with a jury or just to the judge (a bench trial).

For more information about misdemeanor case issues, please click on the following articles:
  1. What Is an Arraignment?
  2. What Is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?
  3. What Is a Misdemeanor Pre-Trial Hearing?
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