What is Really at Stake if you are Charged with a Misdemeanor in New York City?
No Criminal History? - You will Live to See Another Day
The reality is that, in the long run, a person who is arrested for a misdemeanor, who has no prior criminal history is likely to live to see another day. A person accused of a misdemeanor in New York City who has no criminal history is not likely to need to be terribly concerned about being dragged off in chains to Rikers Island for a year.
But the criminal justice system can do more bad things to you than just simply send you to jail. It is more complicated than that.
Of course the prospect of jail looms large, especially in the minds of those who have never been in contact with the criminal justice system before. But realize that the criminal justice system need not send you to jail to drastically change your life. If you plead guilty to or are found guilty of a misdemeanor, for example, you will have a criminal record, regardless of whether or not the judge decides to send you to jail. Jail is but one option for sentence.
That means you could easily walk out of the courtroom after a two minute appearance, never have to do one day in jail, not be on probation, not have to do anything else but maybe pay some court fees and go on with your life as before, except that you could have a criminal record forever. And New York does not expunge criminal records. In New York State a criminal record is forever (with a couple of extremely unlikely exceptions, like a pardon from the Governor). It is hard enough getting a job in this economy without having to explain why you have a criminal record.
You must realize that having a criminal record has nothing to do with actually going to jail. Having a criminal record means pleading guilty to or being convicted of (after trial) a crime. Jail is just one possible sentence of many.
A Whole Range of Possible Outcomes is Possible with Subtle but Important Differences
But if a person accused of a misdemeanor who has no criminal history is hoping to settle the case in a way that 1) avoids jail and 2) avoids a criminal record, such a settlement is quite possible, and generally even very likely in New York City Criminal Courts.
The key word here, however, is generally. There is no such thing in New York City Criminal Court as an automatic result. There are always reasons why any particular case might be treated differently from many other cases, even very similar seeming cases. Prosecution policies shift from time to time. Certain classes of cases are highly political or volatile.
Therefore, ignoring misdemeanor criminal charges or not taking them seriously is unwise. While first arrest misdmeanor cases are "generally" resolved with relative simplicity, there is no such thing as "general" case. Your case is not a "general" case. Your case is your own, with its own set of facts. Also, the stakes when you are charged with a crime are high. This is something that you want to come out the best way possible for you. Therefore, it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to just sort of "see how it goes" when there is even the tiniest remote possibility that you could end up with a criminal record or spend time in jail.
There are any number of issues spinning around misdemeanor charges that need to be considered and resolved before anyone should agree to finish a misdemeanor case in New York City criminal court. Again, there is more than simply the issue of jail time to consider. Complicating factors to the resolution of criminal cases that have nothing to do with going to jail include 1) immigration concerns for those who are not citizens; 2) licensing issues for those who are licensed by State or Federal governments (this includes security guards, taxi drivers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and many others); 3) student loan eligibility; 4) housing elegibility; 4) Employment concerns for those whose employers conduct routine background checks.
In many cases the prospect of jail can actually seem LESS significant than the consequences of certain types of convictions that involve NO JAIL AT ALL. For example, a non-citizen could avoid jail time on a misdemeanor in New York City, and yet find himself subject to removal (deportation), denied admission to the United States, or denied naturalization. A person might avoid jail on a misdemeanor charge in New York City and yet resolve a case in way that will still cause him to lose the ability to be licensed to continue to work in his chosen profession. A person might avoid jail and but then lose the ability to obtain student loans.
Therefore, while being charged with a misdmeanor in New York City might not be some sort of automatic path to misery and despair, neither is it necessarily a "freebie" without risk or penalty. You ought to be paying attention. You ought to take it seriously and do everything you can to make sure you come through the system in the best way possible.
The Real Question
The question then becomes, that if this needs to be taken seriously, what do you need to do in order to make sure that the matter is resolved in the best way possible for you, so that you can make sure not only that the huge and obvious bad thing (jail) doesn't happen to you, but the many more subtle and potentially more life changing consequences don't affect you either?
And the answer is that it makes sense to seek advice from someone who understands the Criminal Justice System in New York City who can guide you through it and in this way maximize your chances of making sure that your experience in the New York City Criminal Courts is swift, sensible, and as painless as possible.
The answer is that you should get a lawyer to help you. Read my article about how an Experienced New York City Criminal Defense Attorney can help you with your misdemeanor case.
Don Murray, May 22, 2012 (718-268-2171)