A person who has been stopped by the police may be ticketed for a "civil infraction," may be ticketed or arrested for a"petty offense" or "misdemeanor," or may be arrested for a "felony," or may be released. It is possible for the person to later be charged, when the police complete their investigation.
Sometimes, the person will be informed that charges have been filed, and will be asked to present himself at the police station by a particular date and time.
At other times, a "warrant" for the person's arrest may be entered into the state's computer system, informing police officers to arrest the person if they find him. If the charges are serious, the police may go out to arrest the person.
A "civil infraction" is not a crime, although it is a charge filed by the state. The state has to prove that you committed a civil infraction by a "preponderance of the evidence," which is to say, that it is more likely than not that you committed the violation. This is a much lower standard than the "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that applies in civil cases. The typical civil infraction is decided by a judge or magistrate, without a jury, in what is typically a short proceeding.
Petty Offenses and Minor Misdemeanors
Some states have a class of petty offenses, where the defendant may be tried without a jury before a judge or magistrate. Typically, the only punishment for a petty offense is a fine. However, these offenses may be of a criminal nature. If you are not sure whether you are charged with a criminal offense or a civil infraction, consult a lawyer.
Some states classify even minor offenses and traffic tickets as misdemeanor offenses or minor criminal offenses, but may treat convictions for certain misdemeanors as non-criminal dispositions. States may have special classifications for this type of offense, using terms such as "violation" or "minor misdemeanor".
A misdemeanor is a criminal offense, and conviction ordinarily results in a criminal record. Misdemeanors are technically less serious offenses, although the consequences of conviction can nonetheless be quite severe. Possible punishments for misdemeanors include imprisonment, probation, fines, and at times driver's license sanctions.
Some misdemeanors are classified as sex crimes and require that a convicted person be registered as a sex offender, and keep the police informed of his place of residence -- a requirement that may continue for life.
Felonies are the most serious offenses that can be charged. Sometimes, the distinction between "felonies" and "misdemeanors" seems arbitrary. However, all of the most serious criminal offenses (such as murder, sexual assault, embezzlement, burglary, robbery, arson, and treason) are felonies.
Typical civil infractions include moving violations, such as speeding and failure to yield. Sometimes people get confused, when they are charged with a traffic misdemeanor, such as having invalid license plates or driving an uninsured automobile, and think that they are being charged with "civil infractions." Traffic misdemeanors are criminal offenses, and will result in a criminal record. Many traffic misdemeanors also carry "points" which will be added to the defendant's driving record, and some require the suspension or revocation of a driver's license. If you are ticketed for a "misdemeanor," the ticket will likely reflect the nature of the charge, and you will be required to appear in court. If the charge is a "civil infraction," you typically will not have to go to court if you pay a fine by mail. Read the ticket carefully.
A defendant charged with a misdemeanor has fewer legal rights than a defendant charged with a felony. If the defendant will not face imprisonment as a result of conviction, he has no right to an attorney. There is no right to indictment by grand jury, or to a "preliminary examination" to review the basis of the charges filed. In some states, misdemeanor charges are tried before six person juries, whereas felonies are ordinarily tried before twelve person juries. Most other rights are the same, for both felonies and misdemeanors.
If there is reason to believe that you have been charged with a crime, you may wish to have an attorney contact the police or prosecutor to find out if a warrant has been issued for your arrest. Many people who have been charged with criminal offenses do not find out about the charges until they are stopped for traffic violations. The police, while checking their identification, find "outstanding warrants" for the person. Sometimes, the warrants have a "limited pick-up radius," or the police officer does not believe that an immediate arrest is necessary, and the officer will simply inform the driver that a warrant has been filed and that the driver should report to the police agency that requested the warrant. At other times, the officer will make an immediate arrest, and will take the person into custody.
After being arrested, a person is "booked" by the police. Ordinarily, the police obtain identifying information from the suspect, such as his name, address, telephone number and driver's license number. The person is checked for outstanding warrants for other offenses. Usually, the police take the suspect's photograph and fingerprints. They make a record of this information, along with the nature of the crime charged, and usually an assessment of the suspect's physical condition. If a person is under arrest at the time he is booked, he will ordinarily be thoroughly searched. If the arrest was legal, any evidence found in this search can be used as evidence in court.
Yes, if possible. Unless you were arrested on an outstanding warrant, the fact that you have been arrested does not necessarily mean that charges have been authorized. An attorney can advise you of your rights, and how to handle contacts with the police. It can be very helpful to have an attorney intercede on your behalf before a warrant has been issued, as he may be able to influence the prosecutor's "charging decision." Sometimes, an attorney will be able to convince a prosecutor to charge a less serious offense, to send the complaint back to the police for more investigation, or even to refuse to authorize a warrant. However, once a warrant is issued, it is very difficult to get a prosecutor's office to change the charge.