Criminal Law Questions
Frequently Asked Questions About Criminal Cases
1.) What is the difference between a misdemeanor charge and a felony charge?
A misdemeanor charge is a minor criminal charge. The maximum amount of time that a person may be sentenced to jail is for a year. Most misdemeanor charges are traffic violations where typically there is a fine to pay and usually no jail time. Examples of misdemeanors are:
- Illegal Parking
- Careless Driving
- Expired Tag
If someone is convicted of a more serious misdemeanor there will usually be a fine and a jail sentence. Some courts will allow for counseling, treatment, etc., in lieu of jail. Examples of serious misdemeanors are:
- Simple Assault
- DUI (1st or 2nd Offense) – License Suspension is Mandatory
- Domestic Violence
- Possession of Marijuana (License Suspension is Mandatory)
- Possession of Paraphernalia
A felony charge is one for which a person may be sentenced to serve a period of time in the State Penitentiary. This sentence can vary from a short period of time up to life, depending upon the charge. Some felony charges carry with them the potential of a sentence of death. A person convicted of a felony, whether prison time is ordered or not, loses their right to own a firearm and vote. In fact, a common felony charge is that of a convicted felon possessing a firearm. Examples of felony charges are:
- Sale of a Controlled Substance
- Felony DUI
- Possession of a Controlled Substance
2.) Why did I have to post bond?
The purpose of the bond is to try to assure that the defendant will be present for his/her court proceedings. A bond amount is ordered by the court and if the defendant has the means to make that bond, he/she may be released subject to the bond. In most cases, a defendant is bonded through a bonding company where they typically will have to pay the bondsman 10% of the face value of the bond. An example of this is where someone is charged with sale of cocaine and has a bond set at $25,000. The bonding company makes a guarantee to the court that if the defendant does not show up for court, they will pay the court the face amount of the bond, i.e. $25,000.
3.) Once arrested on felony charges, how is the charge resolved?
In a felony case where the accused (commonly referred to as the “defendant”) is unable to make bond, the defendant will be brought before a judge within a 48-72 hour period and the charge against him/her will be explained. This is called an initial appearance and usually lasts a very short period of time. The next step is that the defendant’s case is presented to the grand jury for determination as to whether to indict or not. The indictment is the formal charge in a felony proceeding. Once indicted, the next step is arraignment. The arraignment is where the defendant charged will plead guilty or not guilty. In most, if not all cases, the person charged will enter a not guilty plea at the arraignment. During the arraignment, the defendant will have the benefit of counsel. Once the not guilty plea is entered, a trial is set on the court’s docket. During the time period between arraignment and trial, the attorney for the defendant will collect the discovery in the case. Discovery is provided to the defense attorney by the State, and is in essence, a list of proof that the State plans to put on in the case to convict the defendant. The defendant and his attorney have a duty to provide discovery to the State of their witnesses, alibis, etc. The next phase is the trial or plea. This decision to plead guilty or to go to trial is made by the defendant with the benefit of his counsel’s advice.
NOTE: The ultimate decision to plead guilty or to go to trial is that of the defendant.
At trial, there are three possible results:
1. Not Guilty = Case over.
2. Hung Jury = Case may be retired by the State if they so choose.
3. Guilty = Court will sentence as appropriate under state law.
If the jury finds the defendant guilty, he/she may appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of the State of Mississippi.
4.) What factors does the court consider in determining the amount of the bond?
The following are factors that the court will look at in determining the amount of the bond. This list is not exclusive:
- The seriousness of the crime charged.
- The extent of punishment allowed by Mississippi law.
- The defendant’s criminal record and record on bail, if any.
- The defendant’s reputation and mental condition.
- The defendant’s length of time living in the community.
- Family ties and relationships.
- Employment status and record.
- Identity of responsible members of the community who would vouch for the defendant’s reliability.
- Any other factors that would bear on the defendant’s mode of life or ties to the community, which would involve his/her failure to appear in court.
5.) What is a preliminary hearing?
It is a preliminary hearing’s only purpose to determine if there is probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred. In most instances a probable cause hearing is not given to a person who has made bond. The hearing is not designed to determine guilt or innocence. When someone is incarcerated and cannot make bail or bail has not been set, the preliminary/probable cause hearing is a good opportunity to try to get a bond set or lowered. If there is enough evidence presented to show probable cause of a crime, then the person is bound over to the Grand Jury for a determination of whether or not to formally charge the defendant. This formal charge is the indictment. Once a defendant has been indicted on a charge, then a preliminary hearing becomes moot.
NOTE: Even if the lower court does not bind the individual over to the Grand Jury, the case may still be presented to the Grand Jury by the State. While this does not happen often, it does happen from time to time.