Sometime during your college career, you may be charged with a misdemeanor. This pamphlet will give you some basic information on what that means and how to survive it with as little impact on your future as possible. It is not intended to take the place of legal advice. If you are charged with any crime, it is important that you seek legal advice immediately. If you are a student at the University of Arizona, call ASUA Legal Services at 621-2782 to make an appointment to speak with our attorney.
What is a misdemeanor?
Under Arizona state law, crimes are categorized as either felonies or misdemeanors. Felonies are the most serious crimes -- murder, manslaughter, arson, rape, etc. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes. Some of the most common misdemeanors college students are charged with are underage drinking or possession of alcohol (also known as MIP), possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia (for personal use), DUI, use of a false ID, and giving false information to a police officer.
What happens after I am charged?
Usually, the law enforcement officer who charges you will give you your citation and release you without taking you to jail. The citation will contain the name of the charge and the number of the statute you have been charged with violating, as well as a date and time for you to appear in court. Your initial court appearance is called your "arraignment." Don't make the mistake of thinking that, because you were not taken to jail this is "just a ticket." You have been charged with a crime and if you do not take it seriously, you could face serious consequences.
What happens at the arraignment?
The arraignment is your first court appearance. You will be in a large courtroom with lots of other people who are there for their arraignments. The judge or the judge's clerk will call your name, and you will walk up to the front of the courtroom. The judge will read to you each one of the charges against you and ask how you plead. You can plead "guilty," "not guilty" or "no contest." Instead of asking you how you plead, the judge might offer you the opportunity to participate in a diversion program (more on that below). The law enforcement officer(s) who gave you the citation will not be present and the facts of the case will not be discussed.
What happens if I plead guilty?
If you plead "guilty" or "no contest," the judge will note your plea and tell you what your sentence is (usually only a fine. If you are facing a jail sentence, the judge will not accept your guilty or no contest plea, but will enter a not guilty plea on your behalf). You will go to the appropriate courtroom employee to pay or arrange to pay the fine (you can make a payment plan). You will not have to return to court, but you will have a criminal conviction that will stay on your record forever.
What happens if I plead not guilty?
If you plead not guilty, the judge will set another court date for you. If you are in Tucson City Court (where you will go if you are cited by Tucson Police Department officers), the judge will set a date for a pre-trial conference. If you are in Pima County Justice Court (where you will go if you are cited by UAPD, Pima County Sheriff's Dept. or just about any other law enforcement agency in Pima County), the judge will set a trial date (unless you are charged with DUI or are facing the possibility of jail time, in which case he/she will set a pre-trial conference).
If I am guilty, don't I have to plead guilty?
Pleading not guilty, even if you committed the crime with which you are charged, is okay. It is not the same as lying and will not be held against you by the court if you change your plea to guilty later or lose at trial. Pleading "not guilty" is a way to preserve your options -- including your opportunity to enter into a plea bargain with the prosecutor and your opportunity to go to trial and make the prosecutor prove the case against you.
How can a plea bargain help me?
Let's assume you are charged with two crimes: minor in possession of alcohol and using a false ID to gain entrance to a licensed establishment (a bar). At your pre-trial conference, the prosecutor may offer you a plea bargain: if you plead guilty to the minor in possession charge and pay a fine of $350, the charge of using a false ID will be dismissed. Suddenly, instead of two criminal convictions on your record, you have the opportunity to have only one. If you simply plead guilty at your arraignment, you will not have this opportunity.
What are the penalties if I am convicted or plead guilty?
Misdemeanors are divided into three categories: Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3. Class 1 misdemeanors are the most serious and Class 3 are the least serious. The maximum penalties are:
Class 1 misdemeanor: up to $2,500.00 fine and six months in jail;
Class 2 misdemeanor: up to $750.00 fine and four months in jail;
Class 3 misdemeanor: up to $500.00 fine and 30 days in jail.
Does this mean that people convicted of misdemeanors
go to jail?
No. The penalties set out above are only the maximum penalties. If it is the first time (or even the second time) you have been convicted of a misdemeanor, it is extremely unlikely that you will be sentenced to any jail time. (The exception is DUI, which carries a mandatory jail sentence.) Nor is it likely will you have to pay the maximum fine. For example, if you are convicted of possession of marijuana (which is actually classified as a Class 6 felony, but is usually treated as a Class 1 misdemeanor), you might be fined $400 and sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation.
What if I don't have the money to pay the fine?
Many people convicted of misdemeanors do not have the money to pay the fine immediately. The courts will set up a payment plan, which includes a small extra charge to cover their administration costs.
What about diversion programs?
In Pima County, both of our court systems (county and city) and the University of Arizona all have diversion programs. Here are some facts about each of the three programs:
University of Arizona
The program is offered by the Dean of Students Office for currently enrolled U of A students who have been charged with misdemeanors by the UAPD. They must be first-time offenders and have been referred to the program by the UAPD, Pima County Attorney's Office or Pima County Justice Court. Completing the diversion program (usually consisting of community service and education), results in the criminal charges being dismissed.
Tucson City Court
This program is offered to first-time misdemeanor defendants (there are some charges that are excluded). You will be referred by the Assistant City Attorney at your arraignment. Successful completion will result in the dismissal of the charge(s) against you.
Pima County Attorney's Office
This program is offered to first and second-time misdemeanor defendants. The arraignment judge will refer you. Successful completion will result in the dismissal of criminal charge(s) against you.
Each of these programs is different, but they all offer those defendants who qualify a way to deal with a misdemeanor charge without risk of a conviction.
What if no one refers me to a diversion program?
If at your arraignment, neither the judge nor the prosecutor mention diversion to you, and you think you might be eligible, speak up and ask. You have nothing to lose.
What does it mean if the charge is dismissed?
It means the City or County has decided not to proceed with its case against you. It means that if you are asked on any application whether you have ever been convicted of a crime, you can answer "no." However, the fact that you were charged with a crime will remain in your records, and there may be occasions when you will have to explain that. For example, if you apply for a teaching certificate, you will have to submit to a criminal background check. That will reveal the misdemeanor charge and you may be asked to explain the circumstances. However, it will not prevent you from obtaining a teaching certificate.
What if I am not eligible for diversion?
You have two choices -- you can either plead guilty and pay a fine or plead not guilty and be assigned another court date. In Tucson City Court, your next court date will be a pre-trial conference. At that time, you can accept a plea bargain and plead guilty. If you don't, a trial date will be set. In Pima County Justice Court, a trial date is set at the arraignment for all those who plead not guilty (with some exceptions).
What if I am innocent?
You still have the same choices. You can go to trial and hope that the justice system will work properly and you will not be found not guilty. You can enter into a plea bargain, or you can choose diversion (assuming you are eligible). Before you make your decision, it is always a good idea to consult with an attorney who can assess the evidence and give you a better idea of the chances of conviction if you go to trial.