So, you have been charged with a criminal offense. What happens from here? First, it is important to understand that there are 3 different major levels of offenses in NYS. Violations, Misdemeanors and Felonies. How your case is handled will depend largely upon what level the offense is.
Classifications of Offenses
The lowest level offense is the Violation. Violations are petty offenses that are not considered crimes. These include Disorderly Conduct, Harassment and other offenses. Violations are generally punishable by up to 15 days in jail but often are resolved with fines or community service. The next level of offenses is the Misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are considered crimes. Class A Misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of 1 year in jail. Class B Misd. carry a maximum sentence of 90 Days incarceration. Other possible sentences include Probation, Fines, Community Service or other conditions. The highest level of offense is the Felony. Felonies are considered serious crimes and carry maximum sentences which may include State Prison. There are different levels of Felonies. The lowest level Felony is a Class E Felony and the highest level Felony is a class A-I felony.
Where cases are handled and how they are started.
Violations and Misdemeanors are handled in lower level Village, Town or City courts, known locally as Justice Courts. Felony charges usually also begin in these courts, but are treated differently, as will be explained in a later section. These charges can be brought by a complaining witness or a police officer signing a piece of paper which accuses you of breaking the law in some way. This is not a finding of guilt, but rather a way to start a criminal prosecution.
The Prosecutor and the Nature of the Case
Once a charge is filed, it is typically referred to the Office of the District Attorney, where it is handled by an Assistant District Attorney (ADA), a prosecuting lawyer. The case is titled “The People of the State of New York v. You.” Although there may be a complaining witness or alleged victim who is accusing you of something, he or she is not a party in the case. Unlike a civil lawsuit, where he or she may be the Plaintiff, he does not control the prosecution of the case. The ADA represents the People of the State of New York and decides how to proceed with each case. Although the ADA will speak with victims, police officers and witnesses in the case, the Office of the District Attorney will decide if and how to prosecute the case and what offers to make to the Defendant, if any.
What Happens in Court First – Arraignment and Bail
When you first appear in court, you will probably be arraigned by the Judge. This simply means that he or she will provide you a copy of the charges against you; read them to you, if you would like; and read you your rights. The judge will also decide whether to set bail, remand you to jail without bail or release you on your own recognizance. Bail is intended to make sure you return to court. If bail is set and someone posts bail for you, the money is returned at the end of the case, assuming you have appeared every time and it is not otherwise forfeited. There is also usually poundage (a service fee) that is taken out. If you are RORd, you do not need to post any money, but you are putting up your good word that you will return to court when scheduled.
Violations and Misdemeanors – What Happens Next? How the Case is Handled
What happens next depends upon the level of the charge, as mentioned in an earlier section. Violations and Misdemeanors continue in the Justice Court, with the ADA there typically making the major decisions. The ADA will investigate the case, speak with police officers, victims and witnesses and will determine if and whether to offer a plea bargain or other means of disposing of the case. A plea bargain means that you plead guilty to the charge or a lesser charge with an agreement or a recommendation from the ADA as to a sentence. In certain cases, other dispositions are available, including diversion or treatment programs. Your lawyer should participate in the process by speaking with the ADA about your case.
Felonies – – What Happens Next? How the Case is Handled
Although a Felony case can begin by a charge being filed in Justice Court, a felony charge cannot be resolved in that court. If the District Attorneys office wishes to continue to prosecute the charge as a Felony, the charges must be presented to the Grand Jury, a private group of 20 jurors who act as a screening process before the case is moved to County Court. If they feel there is enough evidence to proceed, an Indictment is returned and your case will be moved to County Court. You will then be arraigned on the Indictment and the case will proceed from there. If the District Attorney’s Office decides not to present the case to the Grand Jury, they will often reduce any Felony charges to Misdemeanors so that the case can continue in the Justice Court. The ADA will investigate the case, speak with police officers, victims and witnesses and will determine if and whether to offer a plea bargain or other means of disposing of the case as described in the above section.
This is a very general description of the process. There are other variations on how a case will proceed and there are many time limits and time sensitive issues. Therefore, it is important to have a lawyer who is familiar with criminal law, the criminal process, the time frames involved in a criminal case and the local customs. Otherwise you will be at a distinct disadvantage.