You Have Been Charged with a Misdemeanor -- A Brief Guide to What Happens Now

What is a Misdemeanor?

There are three general types of offenses: felonies (which can be subject to term in a state prison), misdemeanors (which can be subject to up to one year in a county jail), and infractions (which can be subject to a fine up to $100.00, plus court costs). Procedures for the different categories are somewhat different.

You will have been given a citation, or a complaint and summons. The citation or complaint includes a short statement of the offense with which you are charged, and states that the offense is a misdemeanor. The citation or summons states a date and time to appear at the county courthouse for your initial appearance. If you are under 18 years of age, you must have a parent or guardian with you at all court proceedings.

Your Initial Appearance (Arraignment)

You should arrive 15 minutes before the time shown on your citation or summons, and check in at the magistrate court clerk's office.

Rights Form: You are given a rights form, which has important information about your legal rights. When your case is called, the judge asks if you have read the form and if you understand your rights. If you do not understand the information in the form, tell the judge what you don't understand and the judge will explain.

Charges and Possible Penalties: The judge tells you the charge(s) and the possible penalties, and asks if you understand them. (At this point, the judge is asking only if you understand the charges; the judge is not asking if you admit to anything.) If you do not under-stand the charge or the possible penalties, tell the judge what you don't understand and the judge will explain.

Right to Counsel: The judge asks if you want a lawyer. If you can't afford one, you can ask the judge for a court-appointed lawyer. If you ask for a court-appointed lawyer, you fill out a form or the judge asks questions about your finances to make sure you qualify. You may be required to reimburse the county for all or part of the costs of the court-appointed lawyer. A court-appointed lawyer is available only if jail time is possible.

Plea - Guilty or Not Guilty? The judge asks if you want to plead guilty or not guilty. If you are not sure whether you want to plead guilty or not guilty, you can ask the judge to reschedule your initial appearance so you can talk to a lawyer first. You can also plead not guilty, and talk to a lawyer before your next appearance or simply leave it to the prosecution to try to prove its case.

Guilty Plea: If you plead guilty, you are admitting you committed the offense charged. You are also giving up your right to a trial and your right to remain silent. If you plead guilty, the judge decides the sentence (there is more information about sentencing below).

Not Guilty Plea - Court or Jury Trial? If you plead not guilty, the judge asks if you want a court trial or a jury trial. In a court trial, the judge hears the evidence and decides if you are guilty. In a jury trial, six members of the community serve as the jury, and they hear the evidence and decides if you are guilty. If you are found guilty after either a court trial or a jury trial, the judge decides the penalty (the sentence). A court trial usually takes less than an hour, a jury trial usually takes a full day. The court schedules your trial for another day.

The judge does not listen to your testimony and decide if you are guilty at your initial appearance.

Pretrial Conference and Trial

If your plead not guilty, the court schedules a pretrial conference and trial, and notice of the date and time for your case is mailed to you or your attorney. If you do not receive the notice within a week or two after your initial appearance, call your attorney or the court to find out when your next appearance will be.

If you ask for a jury trial, the court usually schedules a pretrial conference two to four weeks before the trial. If you ask for a court trial, the court usually does not schedule a separate pretrial conference for another day prior to trial; instead, the pretrial conference happens immediately before the trial.

You must attend the pretrial conference, even if you are represented by a lawyer. You can discuss a plea bargain with the prosecution, and the judge addresses any other issues that need to be resolved before trial.

Sentencing

If you plead guilty or are found guilty, the judge decides your sentence. The judge may decide your sentence at the time you plead guilty or are found guilty, or may schedule sentencing for another day. The judge will ask if there is anything you want to say before the judge decides your sentence. Your sentence is written in a judgment, and you are given a copy.

The sentence must be within minimum and maximum limits set by statute. (The judge will have told you the potential penalties that apply in your case at your initial appearance.) Misdemeanor sentences can include jail, driver's license suspension, fines, court costs, community service, probation, and restitution (money paid to the victim to cover the costs for treatment of an injury, or to repair or replace damaged or destroyed property).

Payments are due, jail time starts, and driver's license suspensions start at the time of sentencing, unless the judge allows otherwise.

If your judgment includes a deadline for future payments, it will also include a date and time for a review hearing. If you do not meet the deadlines, you must appear at the review hearing and show good cause why the court should not hold you in contempt. If the judge decides that you did not have good cause, the judge may require you to pay fines and/or serve jail time for contempt. The court is more likely to find good cause, and to allow an extension of the deadline, if you have paid a significant portion of the amount due.

If your judgment includes a period of probation, and if you do not comply with the terms of probation, the prosecutor may file a motion asking the court to find that you have violated your probation. If the court finds you have violated probation, the court may order you to pay additional fines, serve additional jail time, or anything else the court have included at the original sentencing.

If your sentence includes a driver's license suspension, the sentence may state that the suspension is absolute. If your judgment does not say that the suspension is absolute, you can apply at the court clerk's office for permission to get a restricted permit that allows you to drive for work, school, or family medical reasons. Do not drive until you have the permit in your possession; once you have the permit, drive only during the times and for the purposes stated on the permit. You cannot get a permit for the period of time that a suspension is absolute.

There are some offenses for which the Idaho Department of Transportation (not the court) suspends a driver's license. For more information, call the IDOT or your local department of motor vehicles.

Appeal

On appeal, the district court decides whether the magistrate judge in your case followed the proper procedures and properly applied all the applicable laws. Either you or the prosecutor may file an appeal within 42 days after the judgment is entered.

Failure to Appear

If you do not appear for your initial appearance, you may be charged with an additional offense known as failure to appear (FTA). An FTA is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $300, plus court costs. If you are charged with an FTA, the court is likely to issue a warrant for your arrest.

If you fail to appear for proceedings after your initial appearance, the court will likely issue a warrant for your arrest. You will be required to show good cause why the court should not hold you in contempt. If you are held in contempt, you may be required to pay fines and/or to serve time in jail.

If you can't appear at the scheduled time, contact your attorney or the court as soon as possible. If the court is contacted ahead of time and if you have a good reason, the court may reschedule your case. The court requires compelling reasons before it excuses a failure to appear.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

You are not required to have a lawyer. You may represent yourself if you wish. Another person who is not a lawyer may not represent you in court.

Whether you want to represent yourself or whether you want a lawyer to represent you is a decision only you can make. Idaho courts have tried to make it easier for people who want to represent themselves in court, particularly in misdemeanor cases, but a non-lawyer who represents him or herself is expected to follow court rules and procedures the same as a lawyer.

Neither the judge nor the court clerks can give you legal advice.

Other Information

A misdemeanor citation is a serious matter that is decided in a formal setting. You should dress appropriately. You should be on time, and if you are represented by a lawyer, you should be 15 minutes early so you can talk to your lawyer before your hearing.

Food or drink is not allowed in a courtroom. Children should not be brought into a courtroom unless they are old enough to sit quietly and not disrupt the proceedings. Cell phones and pagers should be turned off while you are in the courtroom. It is illegal to bring weapons of any kind into a courthouse.

If you are represented by a lawyer, listen to his or her advice, and ask questions so that you understand what is happening and can make the best decisions for yourself. If you are not represented by a lawyer, make the effort to become familiar with the law and procedures involved in your case.

Please be patient. There may be a delay before your case is called, and there are a variety of reasons why delays happen. It is often necessary to schedule several hearings for the same time, to make the most efficient use of court time (and taxpayer money). Sometimes, a hearing scheduled earlier in the day takes longer than the court or the parties anticipated. Sometimes the court must deal with urgent matters (such as emergency child protection hearings) which take precedence over previously scheduled hearings.

Interpreters are available for participants who cannot speak, hear, or understand the English language. If an interpreter is needed in your case, contact the court clerk's office prior to your first appearance in court.


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