Criminal offenses are grouped into two categories. A misdemeanor is a lesser offense, such as shoplifting, harassment, or driving while intoxicated. A felony is a more serious crime like rape, murder or kidnapping.
The process from arrest to trial is pretty much the same for misdemeanors and felonies. The greatest difference is how much time you'll serve if convicted, and where you'll serve the time.
Both Charges Begin With Arraignment
Your first appearance in court is always an arraignment. The judge or the prosecutor - the state's attorney - will read the charges against you. You can tell the court whether you're guilty or not guilty. The judge will set bail, which is usually much less for a misdemeanor than for a felony charge. After you pay your bail, you're usually free to go home. In some serious felony cases, the judge may deny bail.
Both Charges Involve Preliminary Hearings
Both misdemeanor and felony processes usually involve at least one hearing before your trial. Depending on the state, these can be called preliminary or pretrial conferences or hearings. Pretrial conferences for misdemeanors usually involve you or your attorney telling the judge which witnesses you want to testify at your trial. The prosecutor will provide the same sort of information. You might exchange "discovery" with the prosecutor - documentation you both plan to use as exhibits. Felony pretrial hearings are usually more involved. For example, the judge might listen to arguments from the lawyers about whether some evidence should be included in the trial.
Trials May Be Different
With both misdemeanor and felony charges, you usually have a choice between having your case decided by a single judge or a jury - but the jury in a misdemeanor trial might include only six people. Felonies are usually decided by a jury of 12, although this depends on the laws in individual states. In a few states, six-person juries are used even for felonies.
Judges Usually Decide Sentencing
Judges usually decide on sentencing right at the end of a misdemeanor trial - especially if the charge is relatively minor, such as shoplifting. For more serious charges, they might set a date for a separate sentencing hearing. Almost all felony sentences are decided at separate hearings. For both misdemeanors and felonies, the length and severity of your sentence is usually up to the judge. Misdemeanors usually result in less than a year in a county jail. Felony sentences are served in state or federal prison and usually involve much more time.
A Criminal Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding misdemeanors and felonies is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.