MISDEMEANOR CRIMINAL CHARGES IN NEW YORK CITY

BY: Don A Murray, Founding Partner, Shalley and Murray

People accused of misdemeanor criminal charges, like Petit Larceny, misdemeanor Assault, Theft of Services, and similar offenses, especially those who have never been arrested before, most often find themselves plagued by one of two misconceptions.  One misconception involves over-reacting to the situation.  The other misconception involves under-reacting to the situation.  In the end, the solution to both problems is to seek guidance from an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

OVER-REACTING

The first misconception believed by some is the worry that they are teetering on the brink of being dragged into Rikers Island in chains for a few months.  They lie awake at night, unable to sleep, driven mad by the fear of imprisonment and the life shattering consequences of a criminal conviction.  For someone charged with a misdemeanor, especially someone who has no prior criminal history, this is usually an over-reaction.  My experience as a criminal defense lawyer in New York City for more than 20 years tells me that being dragged off in chains to Rikers Island is probably not in the future of a person charged with a misdemeanor who has no prior criminal history.

Unfortunately, this statistical truth about the criminal justice system in NewYork City is not often stressed in discussions with some lawyers who perceive a monetary advantage to stressing instead the possibility of "up to one year in jail" in consultations with potential clients.  This consultation technique serves the purpose of enhancing the likelihood of the lawyer being retained (out of fear) and setting up the client to be incredibly grateful when the lawyer is ultimately able to manage to obtain a marginally better result.  The lawyer looks like a hero.  The client is relieved that he or she was not dragged off to Rikers Island in chains for "up to a year".  Everyone is happy.

UNDER-REACTING

The second misconception is probably as bad as the first, and potentially worse.  The second group of people accused of misdemeanors, are under the mistaken impression that being charged with a misdemeanor is little short of a joke that requires no attention and that all they need to do is show up and things will just sort of work out in the end.

While it is certainly true that very good outcomes to misdemeanor accusations in New York City are frequently available in the end, especially for those who have never been arrested before, there is every reason to pay very close attention to the situation in order to make absolutely sure that one of those good outcomes comes to you.

People in this category will make virtually no effort to pay attention to their case, will not seek legal advice from a lawyer, and will simply show up on their court dates expecting that things will work out just fine.  And they might.  It is possible.  

But this is a silly approach because although the likelihood of a good result is probably high, the downside to a mistake here is potentially huge and probably irrevocable.  It's like having chest pains and saying "oh it's probably nothing" instead of checking it out with a doctor.  The truth is it may not be serious.  But if it is, and you don't check it out, the consequences can be...problematic.

More and more these days, there are consequences to contact with the criminal justice system that go beyond the criminal justice system.  People often make the mistake of thinking that if they don't go to jail (which they very well may not when charged with a misdemeanor, especially for a first arrest) then all is well.

Not necessarily.

Those who are not citizens (including legal residents) risk removal from the country or denial of admission to the country on attempted reentry for conduct that New York State treats as merely misdemeanor behavior.  The precise type of good outcome can make a big difference, not for the criminal court, but for the Federal Government and can make the difference between being able to remain in this country or being forcibly removed.  Non-citizens, therefore, need to pay attention to the finer points of exactly how the case is resolved or else their quick and easy short term solution to the criminal charges might turn into (down the road) a nightmare with the Federal Government.

More and more professional licenses and government employment opportunities require detailed background checks that can uncover arrest information.  This means that the precise resolution of any case, even a misdemeanor case may become visible to a future employer or licensing agency.  Where there are a number of possible types of resolutions potentially available, it makes sense to pay attention to issues such as which of the available possibilities will cause me the least harm in the future.

THIS IS WHY YOU NEED A LAWYER "EVEN" FOR A MISDEMEANOR

Even if you are not seeking to have a knock down drag out fight in Court to the bitter end, you ought to have customized legal advice on a misdemeanor not only to make sure that you get an outcome (if possible) that keeps you from going to jail and getting a criminal record, but also to make sure that the resolution that you do agree to is not something that will haunt you later in life.  The short term goal of avoiding jail and a criminal record may not be the tricky part, especially if you have no prior criminal history.  The tricky part is making sure that your outcome in criminal court, as best as can be achieved, meets your personal long term goals as well.

We get calls every month from people looking for help to try to undo the outcomes of cases from months or years ago.  Inevitably, when asked why they didn't pay attention to the details of the case at the time, they will respond with statements like "I didn't think it was a big deal." or "It was just a misdemeanor" or "I just went with Legal Aid because I thought it would be too expensive to hire a lawyer."

HIRING A LAWYER FOR A MISDEMEANOR IS AFFORDABLE

One thing is for sure.  Hiring a lawyer a year down the road to try to undo a case that was resolved in a way that turned out to be unfavorable is going to be very expensive assuming there is even any remedy possible.  Most of the time, when people call us to undo a previously resolved case, we have to turn them away because there is quite frankly nothing to be done.  Where some legal issue can be identified we refer people to an appeals lawyer who will not come cheap given the complexity of re-opening old cases.

It is far more economical simply to do it right from the start.

If the goal is to force the Government to a trial of the case, of course, this will necessarily involve an enormous amount of preparation, multiple court appearances, and then the continuous days in court required for a trial.  Frankly, while it is exactly what is wanted and needed in some cases, trial is going to generate fees that will reflect the large amount of time and effort required.

On the other hand, if the goal of the case is to come to a reasonable resolution that also makes every effort to account for potential issues down the road (immigration, employment, etc) then we are talking about a much more limited (but nonetheless important) amount of work.  We may well be talking about just one to three court appearances, depending on the situation.  This means that the fees for this sort of situation will then necessarily be substantially less than the fees to bring a case all the way to the conclusion of a trial.  Call 718-268-2171  for your free consultation and quote.

CONVENIENCE

Having your own lawyer for a misdemeanor, aside from likely being more affordable than you probably think, will also provide you with some extra benefits that might be loosely collected in a category called "convenience".  Some people who have the attitude of wanting to "go with" Legal Aid when charged with a misdemeanor become frustrated at their experiences in Court.  Your experience in Court is likely to be far superior with your own private lawyer, at least with respect to the convenience and predictability of the appearances.

With a private lawyer from Shalley and Murray, you can expect to be met at Court in your Courtroom by your attorney before the judge takes the bench.  You can then expect that your case will be one of the first cases called for the day.  Since most calendar calls in misdemeanor Court take five minutes or less, you can usually count on being finished in Court for the day by 10 AM.  Furthermore, you can expect to have contact with your lawyer prior to the court appearance so that you will already know what is going to happen in Court before you appear.  What is going to happen in Court will rarely be a surprise for you.

If you choose to "go with" a public defender, your experience will not be so predictable.  Misdemeanor cases take the lowest priority for the public defenders.  When a public defender has felony cases scheduled the same day as misdemeanor cases, Court rules require that they attend to felony cases first.  Felony cases are given priority over misdemeanor cases.  Therefore, it is quite likely that your case will not be the first stop of your public defender.  In fact, so pervasive is the low priority given to misdemeanor cases, that the Court system has developed an institution called the "anchor" or "sweeper" attorney whose job it is to appear in the misdemeanor courtroom in the afternoon to attend to all the cases that the attorneys couldn't get to because of their commitments to other cases in other courtrooms.  

That means that if your attorney is unable to get to you in the morning session, not only will you be sitting in Court from 9:30AM until 12:45PM, but you will have to return at 2:00PM to wait for the "anchor" or "sweeper" to "sweep" your case up.  Realize that it could well be that the "sweeper" will be a lawyer who you have never met before or spoken to before and that this lawyer will then stand up on your case and every other case in the courtroom that is left over.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this process, but it might not be the type of representation you would choose if you had a choice.  You would probably prefer a more predictable experience in court, if for no other reason than that you could be fairly confident that you would be done before 10 AM.

It makes sense, then, to consult with a lawyer about your case, even if it is "just" a misdemeanor.  You will have the security of knowing that your case is being handled by someone who has your specific situation in mind who is looking out for you not only in the short term but as far as possible into the long term as well.

If you would like to consult with a lawyer from Shalley and Murray, for free, just call 718-268-2171.  We can schedule an appointment or even a video conference right away.