This is the first in a series of satirical pieces I wrote several years ago about the criminal justice system. It's snark, but there is a lot of truth and information in here. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to the criminal justice system. Let me be your guide . . . Just what is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor anyway?
So, you've been arrested, or are thinking of doing something that might get you arrested. Well, there are a few things you need to know beforehand.
My name is Terri and I'm a criminal defense attorney. I'll be your guide to the criminal justice system. I wear several other hats as well, but that's the job that accounts for the majority of my student loan debt, and it's the job I write down when I have to fill in the 'occupation' blank on a document.
I'm not just a criminal defense attorney; I'm a public defender. If you can't afford to retain your own attorney, your transgressions against the peace and dignity of the state will land in my inbox. Therefore, this set of essays will center on criminals and criminalities from a common-man point of view. I'll talk more on how to get the most out of your relationship with your attorney and how to make the most of your time in the criminal justice system. However, today's discussion covers some of the basic information you need to know to get around.
Feel free to print out or take notes. I consider the following a public service and a way to clear out my inbox. Unlike private attorneys, I get paid whether you get arrested or not. So, by helping you keep out of jail, I'm helping myself keep my Fridays free.
Since the criminal justice system is just a traffic stop away, I thought I'd give you all a few pointers to help avoid being flattened by the wheels of justice. Like everything else, the "law" has its own set of players. Knowing the basics will make your relationship with the justice system go more smoothly.
1. City Cop vs. County Mountie vs. Trooper Scooper: Of course, these are all euphemisms for law enforcement officers. The guys who exist just to spoil your good time and make your life miserable. The guys who lurk behind every bush and know your every move, usually before you do. That is, until someone breaks into your house. Then they are slow-moving stupid oafs who, in your exalted opinion, couldn't catch a cold. In other words, they can't win. Since they can't win, some will not hesitate to score a point or two at your expense whenever possible. How many chances they get depends on you.
The main distinction among the three types of officers usually comes down to one key word: jurisdiction. That's legalese for "turf." Where you commit your crime will typically dictate who will be knocking at your door or on your car window. It's important to know where you are when you are breaking the law because each type of officer has their own quirks.
There are exceptions to every rule, but these generalizations are accurate enough to be, well, generalizations. If you ever have any doubts, check with your local government.
The city cop (or policeman) works for your city or town and has basic jurisdiction within city limits. Call him "officer." He works for the Chief of Police, usually an appointed or salaried official. If you are in a small town, chances are this officer is very young and makes less than your babysitter. Therefore, he may be a bit edgy from hunger and a trifle self-important. He's certainly not doing it for the pay. He considers himself part of the "thin blue line" between civilization and anarchy. Either that or he's trying to build enough cred to get hired by a city that pays better.
This is not a time to be witty. Statements like "Well, I was too drunk to walk" or "Don't you have a jaywalker to pick on?" will not get the response you want. [Free hint #1: the later it gets, the less funny you get].
The county mountie (or deputy) works for the county and answers to the Sheriff, an elected official. Call him "deputy." His beat is everything that is inside the county line, but outside the city limits. Unless there are legal papers of some sort involved. In just about every county in America, the Sheriff's office is an arm of the court system. If you hear a knock at the door and see a deputy through the peephole, odds are he has some sort of legal papers (warrants, summons, etc.) to give you. They call this "being served" although I've never understood what benefit this "service" confers on the recipient.
As a result, the public sometimes sees deputies as errand boys who only ask your name and then give you stuff you don't want. They also often have odd looking two-tone uniforms (ie - olive green with red pocket flaps and epaulets). This can lead to an inferiority complex. They don't miss a chance to get involved when there is real crime afoot. Deputies chase speeders and kick in doors on meth labs, just like "real" cops. They also carry guns. Dismiss (or diss) a deputy at your own risk.
The trooper scooper (or state trooper or highway patrolman) pounds a beat along the state and federal highways of our great land. Call him "trooper" or better yet, "sir." They consider the speed limit to be the eleventh commandment and that the governor should have carved it on a stone tablet. Your scoff-law behavior on the highway is a direct affront to their sense of duty and well-being. A disorderly highway leads to a disorderly society. It is their job to prevent that.
If you are not sure whether you've been pulled over by a sheriff's deputy or state trooper, run this quick test. If you see a starched khaki, navy, or black uniform, mirrored sunglasses (even at night) and a flat-brimmed hat, you are probably dealing with a trooper. If you are still not sure, tell a joke. A deputy might just crack a smile. A trooper will find another law you've violated. All troopers have their humor glands removed at the academy. Remember, you've been warned.
2. Lower Court Judge vs. District Court Judge: Every state (and even some counties) have a variant on the same court system. They may go by different names, but all the judges fall into one of two camps. Elected or governor-appointed District Court judges and all the other assorted lower court judges. As one lower court judge put it in court, "I'm a small 'j' judge. You need to take that to the capital 'J' Judge upstairs."
How do you know who you are in front of and why does it matter? First, the physical signs. For example, you are in an elevator and two judges get in with you. How can you tell? Both wear black. However, the District Court judge may wear a robe of better quality material. Typically there is no nylon for an elected official. A fine wool or silk robe is a tip-off.
The second hint is the courtroom. Look around. Is the courtroom paneled and softly lit with Art Deco light fixtures? Is there a Depression-era fresco of Lady Justice on the wall? Is the ceiling molded? Is the bench high and made of dark glossy wood? If so, you have likely entered the lair of a District Court Judge. On the other hand . . . is the lighting mostly fluorescent fixtures with yellowed covers? Are the walls covered with calendars to cover the cracks? Is the carpet stained and squishy? If so, you are in the bowels of the courthouse, the home of the "lower court." (free hint #2: if you look around the courtroom and see a pressed glass pitcher with matching tumblers, get out as fast as you can. You've accidentally stumbled into Federal Court. Trust me; there's nothing for you there!)
The lower court judge is the crossing guard of the justice system. They set bail, conduct first appearances, take pleas on misdemeanor cases, officiate at felony preliminary hearings, and generally deal with all the criminal mundania. In many states, they exist to make sure that as few troublesome cases as possible make it to the District Court. The typical docket case count ratio is about five-to-one with the lower court seeing the five.
However, you rarely hear a lower court judge mentioned in the press unless they screwed up (ie - released a murderer after a preliminary hearing, even if it was the prosecutor's fault).
The District Court Judge is a different animal altogether. At least in the lower court, you know you're dealing with someone who is underpaid, overworked, and bored half to death with petty crimes and the trivia of the system. Like them or not, as an attorney, I have something in common with the lower court judge: frustration.
The District Court Judge, on the other hand, projects an aura that is wise and urbane. The surroundings of the main courtroom fosters a solemn respect for the justice system. However, under the robe is a human being, no different than the rest of us with good days and bad. However, unlike the rest of us, he has the power to ship your sorry butt off to prison. Therefore, dress decently, stand up, take off your hat, and act respectable.
3. Misdemeanor vs. Felony: One of the most misunderstood, yet important, distinctions of the criminal justice system. How they classify your crime determines on how the police treat you, which judge they assign you to, and where you could end up for your punishment.
A misdemeanor is generally thought to be a low-level crime, whereas a felony is a high level crime. It's a little more complicated than that.
The definitions are (pay attention there may be a test later . . . ):
A Misdemeanor typically carries a maximum sentence of twelve months in the county jail. Could be less, can't be more. You cannot go to state prison for a misdemeanor, even if you want to.
A Felony typically carries between one month and the rest of your natural life in a state correctional facility. While there are one or two exceptions (drunk driving is one), you cannot serve your felony sentence in a county jail. So, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, off to the Department of Corrections you go!
Okay, what's the real difference between a misdemeanor and a felony? Ummm . . . not exactly sure. The state legislature makes that distinction. Complain to them.
A few illustrations. In many states, it's a felony to write a $501.00 bad check, and a misdemeanor to beat the crap out of your wife and kids (as long as you didn't use any weapon except your bare fists). Run from the cops after you've committed a misdemeanor and your "fleeing to elude" charge is a misdemeanor. Run from a felony warrant and you've racked up a new felony charge. Cocaine, even residue in a pipe or a baggie, is an automatic felony. A pound of weed, as long as there is no "sales-related" paraphernalia, can be considered as "personal use" and classed a misdemeanor. While in jail, if you take a pop at a fellow inmate, it's a misdemeanor. Spit on a guard and it's a felony. Get the picture? It's okay, neither do I. I have to check the paperwork every time.
So, what does this mean? Is a misdemeanor better than a felony? Should you steal $499.00 worth of goods or $501.00? The answer is, it depends. A few truths about the court system:
a) A misdemeanor is heard by the overworked and tired lower court judge who just may drop the hammer on you to show he is "tough on crime." I have also found that statistically, you are more likely to spend time in jail on a misdemeanor than a felony.
b) Misdemeanors are not governed by the state's sentencing guidelines. Therefore, there is no guarantee or presumption of probation. It's all up the judge. One smart comment could land you in county jail from one to twelve months.
c) The District Court Judge is less likely to be impressed by your low level felony (especially if it is a property crime and no one got hurt). He has to figure out what to do with child molesters and meth cookers. Your first offense felony theft or bad check isn't going to raise his blood pressure. You'll be given the sentence mandated by the guidelines and most likely be on probation before you know it. Once on felony probation, it's difficult to get yourself sent to prison. You have to really want to go.
d) If you do find yourself incarcerated, statistics show that you'll serve a smaller percentage of your sentence in state prison than county jail. There is no automatic good time or parole in county. It's all up to the judge.
My general conclusion is that if you wake up one morning with an uncontrollable urge to commit a crime, you should choose a low-level property felony over a high-level violent misdemeanor. You're less likely to go to be incarcerated. If you do go to prison, you're likely to get out faster. Finally, the felony courtroom is usually cooler and nicer than the misdemeanor courtroom. If you're going to be in trouble, you might as well be comfortable. So, think about it before you commit your next crime.
That's enough of the basics for today. Subsequent chapters, issued when I feel like it, will explore topics such as: The Traffic Stop, The Search Warrant, Probable Cause, Your Rights, County Jail, Your Attorney and You, The Trial, and so on.
Now, let me close with a few comments:
1. This is satire. Nothing replaces the advice of a living, breathing attorney. Listen to him. He's not making it up. Every jurisdiction is a little bit different and "that's not how they do it back home" gets you nowhere.
2. This is satire. While some of the jargon is particular to some jurisdictions, I've culled these portraits from a wide variety of my experiences, opinions, attitudes, and observations. Resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
3. This is satire. I have nothing but respect for law enforcement. An impossible job with impossible conditions. Cut them a break; they're just doing their job. The way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from trouble.
4. This is satire. I care about my clients and work hard for a fair and equitable resolution to their cases. However, I don't pull punches or make pets out of them. I don't want to hear excuses. I want my clients to face facts and realize that they are in trouble.
5. Oh yeah, this is satire. Let that cover anything I've forgotten.