What is a Misdemeanor?
Misdemeanors are less serious crimes. But make no mistake about it: a misdemeanor conviction is a criminal conviction, and can have important consequences to your job prospects and career, your educational opportunities, and your freedom.
What Kinds of Crimes are Misdemeanors?
Common North Carolina misdemeanors include minor drug possession, drug paraphernalia possession, assaults, stalking, certain traffic offenses, threats, and Driving While Impaired (DWI) offenses. Since Driving While Impaired (DWI/DUI) offenses are special kinds of misdemeanors, click here to read about DWIs.
In addition, Domestic Violence cases – which can include assaults, communicating threats, or similar kinds of accusations – are handled in a special courtroom dedicated to Domestic Violence (DV) cases. In Wake County, that courtroom is currently room 4A.
What is the Misdemeanor Process?
Misdemeanors all begin their lives in North Carolina District Court. District Court is a court of “no record” – no stenographer is present – and a court with no jury.
Many misdemeanors start in Disposition Court (a special kind of District Court) in Wake County currently in room 1A. Disposition Court is where the District Attorney attempts to resolve fairly minor misdemeanors, usually by the defendant bringing in some piece of documentation – a valid driver’s license, if the charge is a Driving While License Revoked (DWLR) – or entering into a deferral agreement.
Most cases – including serious misdemeanor cases – eventually head to the 2nd floor of the Wake County Courthouse which are the District Court trial courts. In reality, very few cases actually go to trial. But the 2nd Floor is where both the defendant and the District Attorney prepare to head to trial.
Will My Misdemeanor Case Head to Trial?
Most cases do not end up in trial. In some cases, the District Attorney dismisses the case because the District Attorney has no hope of proving his or her case. In other cases, especially where the defendant is a “first time offender,” the District Attorney will offer to enter into a deferral agreement.
In a deferral agreement, the defendant agrees to certain conditions – perhaps anger management treatment, or alcohol education – and returns to court either six (6) months or one (1) year later. If the defendant has completed all of his requirements and not gotten into any additional criminal trouble, the District Attorney will dismiss the case.
In nearly all cases, the District Attorney makes a plea offer. A plea offer is an agreement by the state where the defendant gives up his right to a trial – and a possible not-guilty verdict – and the District Attorney offers the defendant a more lenient punishment. For instance, maybe the defendant could be sentenced to a 30 day jail term if the defendant lost at trial, but instead the District Attorney offers the defendant a probationary term instead. The defendant might choose that plea offer or “deal” instead of risking the possibility of a jail sentence if convicted at trial.
In a comparatively few number of cases, the case will be resolved through trial. A trial usually happens when the District Attorney’s plea offer is not very good. Or a trial happens when the defendant believes the District Attorney’s case is so weak that the defendant is likely to win at trial.
What Can I Find Out About My Case?
When the police arrested or cited you, they nearly always file a police report. The report will include certain facts, the police officer’s observations, and, possibly, the results of certain tests conducted by the police officer. In addition, the police officer might have taken witness statements, and will have written down anything you said.
In North Carolina, you have no statutory right to this material in District Court. In some cases – DWIs, Domestic Violence cases, for instance – the District Attorney will give you or your attorney a copy of this material as a courtesy. Your attorney should share this material with you.
In the end, your lawyer’s best source of information about your case is you. As soon as possible after the event, write what happened down, including the names of any witnesses, even those who might be bad for your case. This information is very valuable.
How Long Will My Case Take?
In Wake County, a typical misdemeanor case will take anywhere from one (1) to five (5) months. The simpler the case, the more likely it will be to be resolved. But the truth is that you’re probably much more likely to get a better result if the case drags on a bit. That’s because the District Attorney’s case might get weaker, or the District Attorney’s witnesses – including police officers – might miss your court date.
When you head to court, especially during the first couple of court dates, the cases more likely than not will be “continued.” A Motion to Continue is a request by one of the parties – either the District Attorney or your attorney – to delay the case. In Wake County, the common practice is to allow each side three (3) continuances before the case is marked “last” and must be resolved by a dismissal, plea, deferral, or trial.
What Happens if I’m Convicted?
If you are convicted – either following a trial or as part of a plea agreement – you have an automatic right of appeal. This appeal is de novo, meaning that you get a brand new trial at the Superior Court level.
Since the Constitution gives every defendant who could potentially be sentenced to jail a right to a jury trial, and since District Court has no jury, North Carolina Superior Court must allow any defendant convicted of a misdemeanor the chance for a jury trial.
Nearly all people convicted in District Court do not take advantage of their right to appeal to Superior Court. There might be perfectly good reasons not to appeal. Maybe the defendant’s case is very weak, and he could get a worse punishment if he presses his luck. Or maybe he got a very good deal in District Court. Or maybe he doesn’t want to spend the time – it can take a year or more to get to Superior Court – living in uncertainty.
How is Punishment Decided if I’m Convicted?
North Carolina uses a structured sentencing system. The system has four (4) misdemeanor crime levels from A1 (most severe) to 3 (least severe). Each North Carolina misdemeanor crime is designated as a Class A1, Class 1, Class 2, or Class 3 crime.
Each person in North Carolina has a misdemeanor level from Level 1 (no prior convictions) to Level 3, depending on the number of prior convictions the person has. A prior conviction is a conviction that occurred before the alleged offense took place. By matching up a your “prior record level” with the class of the crime, you can determine the kinds of available punishments.
Download the North Carolina Misdemeanor Sentencing Chart (pdf).
Your ultimate punishment – only if you’re found guilty or plead guilty – will be determined in part by the agreement – or plea deal – you have with the District Attorney. In cases where there is no plea deal and you’ve been found guilty by a judge following a trial, you will be sentenced by that same judge following a brief sentencing hearing.
During the sentencing hearing, you or your attorney will have an opportunity to explain why the judge should show compassion. For instance, if you’ve got a good job, if you’re a good member of the community, and have take steps to fix the underlying problem – maybe a problem with alcohol – the judge will almost always take those factors into account. The District Attorney will also have a chance to speak about sentencing. Sometimes a District Attorney is sympathetic. Other times the District Attorney will demand a tougher sentence.
What is a Prayer for Judgment Continued (PJC)?
In certain cases, your attorney might ask for a Prayer for Judgment Continued (PJC). A PJC, if granted by the judge, is a way of putting of punishment into the future and sometimes even permanently withholding judgment. Assuming you get into no further trouble during that time period, no punishment is imposed. You should be prepared to pay costs of court – presently $180 for District Court – even if you are granted a PJC, but no fines.
While PJCs are available for non-traffic cases, they are most often used for traffic misdemeanors where imposition of a judgment would affect insurance rates or would lead to a revocation of a license. An individual may use one (1) PJC every three (3) years per household for insurance point purposes,* and two (2) Prayer for Judgments every five (5) years for DMV point purposes.
What Possible Punishment Will I Receive?
A misdemeanor conviction can result in punishments including fines, community service, drug or alcohol treatment, anger management courses, unsupervised or supervised probation, or jail time.
How Much Will an Attorney Cost?
The typical misdemeanor will cost anywhere between $1,000 and $2,500, depending on the complexity of the case. If you’re interested in hiring The Chetson Firm to handle your misdemeanor case, call (919) 352-9411 weekdays, evenings, or weekends.