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The maximum punishment for a misdemeanor crime is usually:

  • a $1,000 fine and
  • up to 1 year in a county jail

Examples of misdemeanor violations are:

  • petty theft
  • driving on a suspended license
  • vandalism
  • drunk driving

Misdemeanor cases are usually processed like this:

  1. Arrest
  2. Arraignment
  3. Pretrial
  4. Jury Trial or Court Trial
  1. Arrest

    The police arrest the defendant and take him or her to jail.

    Then, one of three things happens:
    • The jail lets the defendant out without filing charges, or
    • The defendant posts bail/bond or is released on his/her own recognizance ("OR"). If this happens, the authorities tell the defendant when to go to court for arraignment, or
    • The defendant stays in custody (jail). Law enforcement officers transport the defendant to the court for arraignment.
  2. Arraignment

    The arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court.

    A judge (or judicial officer) tells the defendant:
    • what the charges are,
    • about his/her constitutional rights, and
    • that if s/he doesn’t have enough money to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer.

    The defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest (also known as "Nolo Contendere").

    Here's what the pleas mean:

    Not Guilty means the defendant says s/he did not commit the crime.

    Guilty means the defendant admits s/he committed the crime. The judge finds the defendant guilty and enters a conviction in the court record.

    No Contest means the defendant does not contest (disagree with) the charge. This plea is the same as a guilty plea, except the conviction cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit.
    In some cases, the judge will let the defendant out of jail on his/her "Own Recognizance”.

    Or, the judge can set bail and send the defendant back to the jail.

  3. Pretrial

    Many things happen before the trial date (pretrial):
    • The prosecution and the defense exchange information. This is called discovery.
    • Either side can file pretrial motions to set aside the complaint, to dismiss the case, or to prevent evidence from being used at trial.
    • The defendant can change his or her plea to guilty or no contest.
    • The judge and lawyers from both sides may talk about how the case could be resolved without going to trial.
  4. Jury Trial or Court Trial

    Jury Trial

    The law says how soon a defendant charged with a misdemeanor must be brought to trial. (See Section 1382 of the Penal Code )

    If the defendant is in custody at the arraignment, the trial must start within 30 days of arraignment or plea, whichever is later.

    If the defendant is not in custody at the arraignment, the trial must start within 45 days of arraignment or plea, whichever is later.

    The defendant can “waive” the right to a speedy trial (called a waiver or "waives time"). This means the defendant agrees to have the trial after the required deadline. But, even if the defendant waives time, the law says the trial must start within 10 days after the trial date is set or continued for trial.

    Before the trial starts, the lawyers choose a jury. During the trial, witnesses may testify and the lawyers present evidence. After all the evidence is presented and the lawyers give their arguments, the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

    If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, s/he will be released. The defendant can never be tried again for the same crime.

    If the defendant is found guilty, the case will be continued for sentencing, or the defendant may be sentenced right away.

    If the defendant doesn’t agree with the guilty verdict, s/he can appeal to the Appellate Department of the Superior Court. (See appeals.)

    Court Trial

    Sometimes, defendants agree to have a court trial instead of a jury trial. This means a judge, not a jury, hears the evidence and arguments and decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
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