Understanding Misdemeanor Court Dates. Arraignment, Motion, Trial

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If you are charged with a crime, you have to go to court. The first court date is usually called the “Arraignment”. But there may be many other court dates if you want a trial, or have a complcated case.

To help you out, here is a general breakdown of the court dates in a typical misdemeanor court case.

1. Arraignment

The Arraignment is the first court date in just about all criminal cases. In the Arraignment, the Defendant gets to hear the formal charges, and may enter a plea. It is the time to say “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” in a common driving under the influence case for example.

There is no evidence presented at the arraignment at all, and the judge usually makes no orders other than to enter the Defendant’s plea into the record and set a new court date for the next step.

Defendants who need more time to hire a Criminal Defense Attorney can ask for a
continuance of the Arraignment before entering a plea. “I need more time to shop for an attorney” is a legitimate basis to continue a misdemeanor arraignment in most cases.

Other reasons a defendant may want to delay or continue an arraignment would be because they don’t understand what is going on, or because the government has not turned over the evidence (discovery) the Defendant needs to evaluate the case.

Defendants who are “indigent” (unemployed and having no assets) can ask the court to appoint a public
defender at the Arraignment.

If a defendant pleads “not guilty”, the court will
usually set a “Pre Trial Conference”. If the Defendant pleads guilty
(or no contest, which is the same thing) the court will sentence the
defendant on the spot in common misdemeanors like petty theft or a DUI.

If a misdemeanor defendant is in custody or jail, the criminal court can usually set, or confirm a bail that is required to release the Defendant.

2. Pre Trial Conference (aka a setting date)

After the entry of a Not Guilty plea, a Pre Trial Conference is set to allow the Defense Attorney and Prosecutor to discuss settlement of the case (also known as resolution) without the need for a trial.

Usually the prosecutor will make an offer to end the case (Plea Offer) and the Defense Attorney will communicate the offer to the Defendant.

The defendant then makes a decision, based upon the Attorney’s advice, whether to accept or reject the offer and demand a trial.

The Attorneys may also discuss any “discovery” issues outstanding, which means discuss the exchange of evidence such as police reports and test results.

Once the Attorneys have discussed the case, and a decision is made on whether or not the Defendant wants a trial, the attorneys report to the judge who then will either enter a guilty plea or set a trial date.

Defendants who do not have a Criminal Defense Attorney’s help are not allowed to speak with the prosecutor directly. “Pro Per”, or self represented, Defendants are therefore at a great disadvantage from the start, because they cannot effectively negotiate a favorable offer like an attorney is allowed to do.

Some misdemeanor cases will have multiple pre trial conferences to give the defendant and prosecutor time to work out a sentence.

3. Motion / Hearing Dates

There may be one or more separate hearings for Motions, which are requests by one side or the other for a Judge to issue an order in the case.

One of the most effective ways to defend a criminal case or to get leverage for a plea negotiation is through the aggressive use of motions, such as a motion to suppress evidence based up on an illegal arrest. Maybe the prosecution is hiding “exculpatory evidence”?

Depending on the complexity of a case, there may be 2, 3, or maybe 4 motion dates prior to a trial.

4. Trial Date

This is the point in a criminal prosecution where evidence is presented on both sides for a judge or jury to consider. Defendants in most misdemeanor criminal cases can request either a jury trial or a “court” trial by judge only.

5. Sentencing Date.

In most common misdemeanor cases, a Defendant is sentenced immediately after pleading guilty or right after losing a trial. Sometimes this happens in the Arraignment, sometimes immediately before trial.

But defendants in many criminal charges have a right to delay sentencing in order to prepare a presentation for the judge to counter the prosecution’s demand for sentencing. Because of this right, sometimes there is a separate sentencing date.

6. Warrant Recall Hearing.

If a Defendant fails to appear for a mandatory court date, or fails to comply with a court order, the court may issue a bench or arrest warrant. The warrant is designed to get the Defendant back into court, either by arrest or voluntary action.

Once the Defendant with a warrant arrives in court, the court may hold a hearing to determine whether or not is it necessary for the Defendant to be held in custody. At a warrant recall hearing, a court may order the defendant held, order a bail be paid for release, or simply release the Defendant with further instructions.

7. Probation Violation Hearing.

Even Defendants who are accused of violating a sentence or probation have a right to due process. But in the probation violation arena, there is no right to a jury trial (usually), because a defendant on probation is already judged guilty.

Defendants charged with probation violations have a right to a hearing to determine whether or not the violation occurred. These probation violations hearings in misdemeanor cases have a lower burden of proof than a trial, and may be informal in common cases.

8. Order to Show Cause (OSC) Hearing.

An Order to Show Cause is an order from the court directed to a party. Usually, it is an indication that the court is about to take some action, and there will be a hearing to determine whether or not the action will happen.

For example, a court in a DUI probation case may not have proof a defendant completed a substance abuse program on time. Before assuming the defendant violated probation, the court may set an OSC hearing to see if the Defendant can show up and provide the missing proof without need for a warrant or arrest.

There you have it, a simple breakdown. Of course, we do not promise this information applies to your case. You may have something different.

Questions? Leave a comment.

About Attorney Christopher Dort

Public Interest Attorney. CA State Bar #196832. Licensed to practice law in California 1998, and then the US Federal District Court in 2000. Civil Litigation Trial Attorney (Insurance Defense Firms) 2000-2003. Private practice 2003 - present. First Solo Criminal Jury Trial 1998 (Santa Cruz County). First Civil Jury Trial 2002 (Orange County). Santa Cruz County Public Defenders Office 1996-1999 (law clerk). BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz, 1995. JD, University of California, Hastings, 1998.
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