The first phase of the Criminal Process is recognizing whether you have committed a crime. In the State of Georgia, crimes are divided into two major subsections, felonies and misdemeanors. Misdemeanors, the subject of this article, are the least serious crimes and correspondingly carry the most lenient penalties. Misdemeanor crimes can be viewed on a spectrum with the most serious misdemeanors being crimes like simple battery, simple assault, and shoplifting—to the least serious being your most basic traffic violations like speeding, expired registration, and driving with no license on person. Yes, you read correctly. Under the umbrella of misdemeanors are routine traffic violations in Georgia. This means, in Georgia, when you receive a traffic citation, you are being charged with a crime; and like any criminal charge the resultant outcome may, and in many cases will, adversely affect your criminal history and/or driving record. It is pivotal, in the interest of money and irreversible mistakes, that you seek legal counsel early on. Each phase of the criminal process is vitally important and a Georgia Criminal Defense Lawyer or Georgia Traffic Lawyer can save you the collateral effects (i.e. unemployment, inability to drive, college rejection) of proceeding pro se (without a lawyer).
The next critical phase of the criminal process is your arraignment. This is usually the first court appearance and the time in which a defendant is made aware of the specific charges brought against him or her by the State. At the arraignment, a defendant normally pleads guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere—many times a defendant can request a continuance to obtain counsel before deciding how to plea. The arraignment is VERY important particularly in traffic cases where a defendant has a choice between courts should she or he choose to plead not guilty. For instance, most traffic offenses are handled by local city municipal courts or county magistrate courts. These courts have limited jurisdiction and may only hear cases which proceed to trial without a jury. Simply put, asking for a jury trial will put your case in a totally different court and many times a totally different building or location. Whether to demand a jury trial is a tactical decision and requires thought and consideration. The wisdom of an experienced local criminal defense lawyer will be pertinent in making this decision.
Deciding how to plea is perhaps the most important part of a defendant’s arraignment. When in doubt, plead not guilty and consult an attorney before waiving your rights and admitting any guilt. Things to consider when deciding how to plea includes factors such as your age, criminal and driving history, and whether how you plea will make a difference. Take for example under 21 and CDL drivers, both are special classes of license holders who will be punished more harshly under Georgia law than an ordinary driver for most traffic offenses. A nolo contendere plea means nothing for the under 21 driver in regard to saving points on their license. When faced with one Family Violence Battery Charge, a defendant should consider that receiving another may be upgraded to a felony—this is true for a host of misdemeanor charges for which multiple convictions are obtained (including pleas of nolo contendere).
Remember when speaking with the judge or prosecutor that neither are there to advocate for you. The prosecutor works on behalf of the State and is not your lawyer. The judge is a neutral entity but keep in mind that he or she may also decide your fate should you proceed to have a trial before them. Freely given information is just that, freely given, and neither the prosecutor nor the judge is required to ignore such information or disregard it. In fact, each will probably do the opposite. Bridle your tongue and speak only when spoken to. Do not volunteer unsolicited information. Be polite and respectful and use common sense when deciding whether to disclose information.
Your next court date, provided you have been properly arraigned and there were no intervening court dates, should be your trial date. If you have been unable to satisfactorily resolve your case by this point and you do not have an attorney, it is imperative that you hire counsel or apply for a court appointed attorney through the local public defender’s office. You must remember that you will be proceeding against an experienced attorney who intends to prosecute your case to the fullest extent of the law. Pro se defendants are held to the same standards as a seasoned lawyer. Many prosecutors move for harsher sentences should a defendant proceed to trial and lose. The judge, who is not privy to any pre-trial negotiations and is mostly unaware of any terms of plea bargaining, will likely follow the prosecutor’s harsher sentencing recommendation even though a defendant represented his or herself at trial.
Please be advised that the above is merely a snapshot of what a defendant can expect during the criminal process of misdemeanor crimes. The process can include many more steps and contours and a consultation of your exact situation will prove very helpful. The attorneys at Pak and McRae Law, LLC are here to offer insight and representation that will make a difference.