Any criminal offense punishable by imprisonment for a term of not more than one year is a misdemeanor. Any misdemeanor that carries a penalty of imprisonment for not more than six months, a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500), or both, is a petty offense.
Misdemeanors include such offenses as minor assaults, simple possession of controlled substances, some tax law violations, and other offenses. Petty offenses include offenses against traffic laws as well as many regulations enacted by the agencies of the United States.
- Criminal Informations or Complaints
A misdemeanor case can be initiated in several ways. The United States Attorney may file a criminal Information or a Complaint with the court charging a misdemeanor. This is usually done after review of the evidence by an Assistant United States Attorney with a law enforcement officer's assistance. It is the United States Attorney's task to decide whether a case will be brought, and how that case will be charged. That review may involve the Assistant United States Attorney speaking to witnesses and victims, or it may be that the law enforcement officer will report the statements of victims and witnesses to the United States Attorney.
Once the Complaint or Information is filed, a date is set for the defendant to appear before the United States Magistrate for arraignment. In cases where an arrest has been made before the filing of a Complaint or Information, the arraignment takes place immediately.
The arraignment before the United States Magistrate is a hearing during which the defendant is advised of his or her rights against self incrimination and to the assistance of counsel, of his or her right to have the case heard before a United States District Court Judge or before a United States Magistrate, and of the dates for further proceedings in the case.
The Magistrate will review facts presented by the United States Attorney and by the defendant and set conditions of bail release. Those conditions may include a promise to appear on the date set for trail of the case, and/or the promise of a money bond to be forfeited if the defendant fails to appear, or other such conditions of release as seem fair and just to the Magistrate.
The purpose of the bond is to ensure that the defendant will be present when the case is heard for final disposition. It is not necessary for the victims or witnesses to appear at this arraignment, unless they have been specifically instructed to do so by the case agent or the Assistant United States Attorney.
- Petty Offenses
Petty offenses are most often initiated by the issuance of a traffic violation notice (TAN). A TAN is issued to defendants by the law enforcement officer at the time of the offense. The TAN commands the defendant either to pay a fine to dispose of the matter or to appear before the United States Magistrate on the date written on the ticket. Most often the case will be heard for trial before the United States Magistrate on that date, if the fine is not paid. If you are a victim or a witness in one of these petty offense cases, the United States Attorney's Office may request that you attend a witness conference prior to trial.
A trial of a misdemeanor case follows the same pattern as the trial of any other criminal case before the court. The prosecution and the defense have an opportunity to make an opening statement, then the Assistant United States Attorney will present the case for the United States. Each witness called for the United States may be cross-examined by the defendant or the defendant's counsel. When the prosecution has rested its case, the defense then has an opportunity to present its side of the case. The United States may then cross-examine the defendant's witnesses. When both sides have rested, the prosecution and the defense have an opportunity to argue the merits of the case to the court, or, in a case which is being heard by a jury, to the jury in what is called a closing argument. (Some serious misdemeanor cases are heard with a jury, either before the Magistrate or before the United States District Court Judge). The judge or the jury will then make findings and deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty of the offense charged.
In petty offense cases, the court may proceed immediately after the verdict to sentencing. The defendant and the United States each has an opportunity to speak to the issue of sentencing. In misdemeanor cases, the court may request a pre-sentence investigation and report from the United States Probation Office. If such a report is ordered, sentencing will be suspended for a period of time to permit the report to be prepared. If the case before the court involves financial or physical injury to the victim of the crime, the court must consider restitution (repayment of damages to the victim) as part of the sentence imposed.
A Victim Impact Statement, prepared by the victim, can be used to establish this element of damage. In cases in which damage has been suffered as a result of a misdemeanor offense, the victim should bring that damage to the attention of the Assistant United States Attorney handling the case, to ensure that the damage is set before the court.
The victim should cooperate fully with the Assistant United States Attorney and the United States Probation Officer to determine the extent of the impact of the crime.
The function of imposing sentence is exclusively that of the judge, who has a wide range of alternatives to consider and, depending upon the case, may place the defendant on probation (the defendant is released into the community under the supervision of the court for a period of time), or impose a fine. Victims and witnesses may attend the sentencing proceedings and also may have the opportunity to speak to the judge at this time. The Assistant United States Attorney handling the case will tell you if such an opportunity to speak exists for you and will talk to you about such a presentation.