In general, there are three broad types of misdemeanor case: those that are brought based on a direct arrest at the scene of the crime, those that are brought based on an investigation after the crime was committed, and those related to traffic infractions. Just as there are many different types of misdemeanors, there are also many different types of cases. The biggest differences tend to be procedural, and once the cases are brought to trial they all tend to be handled similarly. It’s important to remember that much of this is jurisdiction-dependent, though. Each country and within countries many localities have their own unique rules about misdemeanors. Local laws typically define what sorts of behaviors qualify in the first place, and court rules dictate how cases can be brought. The broad categories outlined here are a starting place, but are not comprehensive for all locations.
Understanding Misdemeanors Generally
A misdemeanor is usually thought of as a lesser criminal offense, one that incurs less punishment than a felony, the name given to the most serious crimes. It’s something that breaks the law, but doesn’t usually cause major damage or serious bodily harm. Some of the most common misdemeanors concern petty theft, driving without a license, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. In the United States, a crime punishable by incarceration for a year or less is usually considered by the federal government to be a misdemeanor. Punishment that exceeds a year is considered a felony. States often follow this federal determination.
Misdemeanor cases almost always attach once the crime has been committed, but not always. A case only arises once law enforcement officials formally charge a person with an offense. Most cases go to trial, which involves a court hearing, though depending on the circumstances it is sometimes also possible to settle out of court. Cases are usually categorized based on how they are initiated.
One of the most straightforward ways to initiate a misdemeanor case is through direct arrest. This happens when a police officer responds to the scene of a crime and apprehends a suspect, for instance, or when someone is arrested for doing something illegal such as selling drugs or black market goods. These sorts of cases are usually initiated as soon as the arrest is made. The arresting officer will usually refer the matter to the local prosecutor, whose job it is to determine whether or not to press charges. “Press charges” in this context means basically to formally accuse the suspect of a misdemeanor offense.
Cases can also come about as a result of investigation. Things like tax fraud, extortion, and professional crimes like legal and medical malpractice can take a long time to uncover and prove. Lawyers and investigators who uncover evidence of a potential crime often refer it to prosecutors, who are lawyers for the government; the prosecutors then decide whether or not to start a case.
In many places, traffic offenses like driving without a license, accruing too many moving violations within a set window, or parking infractions also give rise to misdemeanor charges and, in some instances, formal cases. Most of these are initiated by mail. People typically receive a certified notice to inform then that a case has been opened against them. The notification usually provides information on the trial date, if one has been set, as well as any fines that need to be paid.
Trials and Settlements
Misdemeanor cases are usually resolved in a formal trial. Lawyers for both the accused and the victim — which in some cases is the state or the locality — present arguments and make recommendations, and the judge will make a final determination and enter the charges. Depending on local rules, accused parties can sometimes request a jury to be the ultimate fact-finder, but this can vary from place to place; sometimes juries are only available for more serious crimes.
Not all cases end with a formal trial and verdict. A lot depends on the jurisdiction, the crime, and the options available. Sometimes prosecutors will make settlement offers, such that the parties can reach a deal out of court; this saves time and usually also money. This tactic is often very popular when the people accused of committing misdemeanor crimes are closely affiliated with others who have committed more serious offenses. Prosecutors are often willing to lessen or even drop the charges against the misdemeanor defendants in exchange for information and testimony against others. This is often known as “plea bargaining.”
Misdemeanor crime generally is divided into several levels or classes, all of which can vary based on location. Some misdemeanor cases only carry a fine, while others require jail time. Each class that requires incarceration typically carries a recommended amount of jail time to be served. Fines also often are specified per class.
Unclassified misdemeanors are statues that are not noted by a specific class. Lawmakers sometimes do this to enable a penalty that falls outside of the specifics in the classes. One example is a locality that categorizes first-time possession of marijuana as an unclassified misdemeanor. The punishment could be a maximum of one month in jail.