Laws are created at the federal level and at the state level. Federal laws apply to the United States government and regulate interstate commerce, national security, foreign affairs, patents and copyrights, the United States Postal Service, and many other areas. State laws are created by the individual states and primarily apply to conduct within the state. Both the federal and state governments create laws in many different areas, including criminal law. This discussion applies primarily to state criminal laws.
- State criminal laws are created to deter and punish harmful conduct within the state.
- There are two primary categories of offenses, felonies and misdemeanors.
- There are also lesser offenses that are punishable by infractions, tickets, fines and warnings. These generally apply to minor offenses related to driving, code violations and other violations.
- Generally speaking, a felony is a more serious offense that is punishable by a prison sentence of one year or more. Indeed, many lower level felonies are punishable by a prison sentence of a year and a day.
If you were charged with a misdemeanor, you may or may not have to go to court:
- If you simply want to plead guilty (or in some cases, nolo contender, or no contest), you may be able to avoid going to court by paying a fine. This is most common in traffic violations. Most courts provide the option to pay via the internet.
- If you received a summons, you will have to appear in court at the stated date, time and location.
- The first court hearing is known as the arraignment, or initial appearance.
- At the arraignment, the charges will be made known to you.
- You will be given a “rights form” or you will be apprised of your rights in another way; sometimes the judge will read them to you.
- The judge will ask if you understand the charges and you will be asked if you have or need a lawyer.
- If the possible penalty includes a jail sentence, the court will provide a public defender if you don’t have your own attorney. You will be responsible for partial or full repayment of the court-ordered attorney’s services.
A misdemeanor conviction results from violating a misdemeanor law. Misdemeanors are less severe than felonies but often result in serious consequences, including a jail sentence of up to one year, fines, community service and other court sanctions.