What is the court process for misdemeanor cases?
Well first, lets talk about “what is a misdemeanor?” So basically in Florida there are two types of cases, misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is any crime that’s punishable by up to one year in jail. A felony is anything beyond one year in jail. Some common examples of a misdemeanor might be a DUI case, domestic violence, possession of a small amount of marijuana, shoplifting. Those are kind of typical, common misdemeanors.
The court process starts with the first court date, which is called “plea day” or “arraignment.” At that court date, the judge is going to advise you of what your charges are, he or she is going to advise you that you have the right to an attorney or to have one appointed, and then they’re going to assign court dates that come after the plea day. As long as you have an attorney before the plea day, we’ll file what’s called a written plea of not guilty, and a waiver of arraignment. What that does is it cancels your first court date. It’s not a failure to appear; you don’t get in trouble. You’re just appearing in writing through your attorney.
After the plea day, your case is going to get scheduled for, it’s really a pretrial conference, but your court paperwork is going to say either “jury pretrial” or “judge pretrial.” A jury pretrial conference is the one that we recommend because that puts you on track towards a jury trial, whereas a judge pretrial puts you on track towards a judge or bench trial, which we almost never recommend. Sometimes, for clients that are unrepresented, they will put you on that judge trial track because you don’t know any different and they’re taking away your right to a jury trial. So, the first thing we do is check that, and if need be we transfer the case to a jury trial docket.
Depending on which judge is assigned to your case you may or may not have to appear at the pretrial conference. Most of our judges here in Okaloosa County allow the attorney to appear on your behalf. We’ll just have to have you sign a form called a “waiver of appearance,” and we can go to court for you. We always tell our clients when the court dates are because some clients want to go to all of their court dates, and that’s perfectly fine. We just offer that waiver of appearance as a convenience for people who don’t want to have to take time off work.
So after the pretrial conference, there will be one final court date before a case goes to trial, and that’s called a jury trial review, and at that date one of a couple of things is going to happen: the case is going to get dismissed, the case is going to be negotiated with a plea agreement, or the case is going to be set for trial.
Obviously, you and I will have several meetings before the pretrial conference and the jury trial review so that we know exactly what’s going to happen before we go to court. That’s really something that kind of distinguishes us, I think, from other attorneys. If you go to the courthouse, you’ll see a lot of attorneys scrambling at the last second, talking to their clients at the very last minute, and then the client only has a few seconds to make really what could be big decisions about how their future is going to be affected by this. We always make every effort to get the client into our office before the court date so that we can talk and take all the time we need. The client knows what’s going to happen by the time they get to court. It’s kind of consistent with our number one goal, which is lowering stress and helping make this process a little bit easier.