How does the criminal system work when I have been arrested or given a citation to appear in court for a misdemeanor?

The criminal justice system can be confusing for a first time accused and without training or experience in the court system, it is intimidating and stressful.  Here is a brief synopsis of how the process works when you are faced with criminal charges.


If you are arrested for a misdemeanor, chances are you were released after being briefly detained and given a citation with a date to appear in court.  If you did not receive a citation, it is possible that the district attorney will send you notice of your court date if and when they file charges against you.  The citation will usually list the charges you were arrested for or cite released on.  These are the charges that the arresting officer will recommend that the district attorney file against you but they are only recommendations; the D.A. has the final say as to what gets filed and what charges you will face in court.

If you were arrested and posted bail on your case, then your bail bondsman will notify you of the date to appear in court.  It is important that you appear on the date noted on your citation or the date given you by the bondsman.  If you do not appear, then a warrant will issue by the court for your arrest.  On most misdemeanor cases, a licensed attorney can appear on your behalf.  Penal Code section 977(a) allows for an attorney to appear for you.  If it is a domestic violence or child abuse case or any other misdemeanor which may require the judge to issue a criminal protective order at the arraignment, then your presence along with the attorney will be necessary.

If the case has not been filed on the day you were cited to appear on, then it is always a good idea to check with the district attorney’s office and find out the status of the case.  It may still be under investigation or perhaps even rejected.  In either case always check with either the criminal clerk’s window or with the D.A.  If you are out on bail, ask the clerk to continue the arraignment for a month so that your bail is not forfeited.  Your bail bondsman can give you advice regarding this.

If you were arrested but subsequently released on your own recognizance, the process is the same as stated above.  The only difference is that you will be given a date to appear in court by the jail from which you were released.  Sometimes this will be on the citation you received when arrested and sometimes by the jail on a separate document.  Remember, you can always call the District Attorney in the jurisdiction of your arrest to find out your arraignment date.

If charges have been filed and your arraignment proceeds as scheduled and you have an attorney, your attorney will most likely enter a plea of “not guilty” and receive the police report and other relevant discovery.  Even though you have a right to a jury trial within 60 days of your arraignment, your attorney will probably waive the right to have it within that time period while still reserving your right to a jury trial at some later date.  Since you are out of custody, there is usually no reason to rush and most misdemeanors, not all, resolve without a trial.  If you are in custody, then you have a right to a jury trial within 45 days and you will consult with your attorney as to whether you waive your right to a speedy trial.

At the arraignment and after pleading “not guilty” for you, your attorney will set a pre-trial hearing.  This is a hearing where the defense attorney that you have hired and the prosecuting attorney (D.A.) Talk about the case and discuss possible resolution.  There are only three possible outcomes: the case resolves with a “plea bargain”, the case is dismissed, or the case proceeds to trial.  The majority of misdemeanor cases resolve through a plea bargain.  To resolve the case in the most favorable way, a good attorney will accentuate the possible weaknesses in the prosecutors case.  There may be some proof problems with the case.  Also, the defense will inform the district attorney of mitigating factors that help explain why the case should be treated in a more favorable way with a lighter sentence based on the defendant’s prior accomplishments, efforts to rehabilitate, or compensation made to the alleged victim.  There are myriad ways in which an attorney can assist in the favorable resolution of the case, both in getting the charges dismissed or reduced and/or helping the defendant avoid jail.  Ultimately, the decision to take a plea bargain rests with the defendant.  In consultation with the attorney, the defendant can make an informed decision as to how to proceed and will be advised of the strengths and weaknesses of the case.  This process of deciding may take some time and it is not uncommon for attorneys to make numerous appearances at many pretrials, negotiating with several different D.A.s and conducting a thorough investigation before getting to a resolution that satisfies the defendant.

If no resolution can be reached and both sides are at an impasse, then a jury trial date will be set by the judge and witnesses will be subpoenaed and the trial will commence.  Most misdemeanor cases take no more than a week to finish including picking a jury and closing arguments.  Jury deliberation on a misdemeanor rarely goes beyond one or two days.  If a verdict of “not guilty” is rendered, the defendant is exonerated of the charges and leaves the courtroom and its all over.  If a “guilty” verdict is rendered, then either sentencing can take place immediately or at a later date by stipulation of all parties involved including the judge.  A defendant always has a right not to be sentenced within six hours of the rendering of the jury verdict.  If the sentencing is postponed, the judge can order certain conditions on the defendant as a condition of remaining out of custody pending sentencing or can remand the defendant into custody.

For more info, please contact a professional criminal lawyer.

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Richard McGuire