Misdemeanors – Hire a Lawyer!

Effective December 1, 2013, the NC General Assembly modified the NC Misdemeanor Punishment grid to allow Class 3 misdemeanors to be punished by fines and costs only, thereby effectively preventing individuals charged with those offenses from receiving court-appointed counsel or public defenders.  The reason behind such moves was to reduce the budget for appointed counsel and to prevent individuals from receiving jail time for minor offenses.  While the later is good in theory, the change has consequences for defendants beyond simply paying their fines and court costs.

Class 3 Misdemeanors encompass a number of offenses, ranging from allowing an unlicensed person to drive to shoplifting, to certain speeding offenses, to worthless checks valued less than $2000.00.  The most common of those Class 3 misdemeanors is Possession of Marijuana less than 1/2 oz and the recent establishment of Possession of Marijuana Drug Paraphernalia.

Pursuant to N.C.G.S. 90-96, many first-time drug charges, including possession of drug paraphernalia, are eligible for a “Conditional Discharge.” The essential function of the statute is to provide a way for first-time drug offenders to keep their records clean and lead them to drug classes which hopefully prevent their return to the court system.  In theory the statute is an excellent resource for defendants, however, it is not a mandatory program for first-time offenders.  Since the program is not mandatory, it is up to the defendant to request the option.  In some jurisdictions, the court and/or District Attorney may offer the program, but as both are restricted from providing legal advice to defendants, they cannot explain the consequences of failing to participate or the consequences of choosing to comply.

This is where the advice of an attorney is essential.  The Court and the District Attorney’s Offices are not in a position to even discuss the possible additional consequences to a defendant of the resolution of his or her case – whether it is the effect of a fine, or the option to take a case to trial.  At best they can only provide the potential maximum sentence for a charge, but not individually-tailored advice which applies to each defendant.

An attorney can determine if you are eligible for a “Conditional Discharge” in drug cases, or other avenues of assistance such as a Deferred Prosecution in other cases, what your options are in complying, what fines and fees you may end up owing, and the steps you can take to clear your record of the charges.  Failing to properly handle a misdemeanor charges has consequences:

  1. Payment of Fines and Fees: generally if there is a conviction, there are associated fines and fees.  However, those fees can vary greatly depending on how the case is resolved.  Most defendants expect to pay some sort of fine, but don’t realize how quickly the various costs of court can add up.  At this time court costs begin at $188.00 and do not include any fines the court may assess.  An attorney can explain what you are paying for and what ways you can avoid additional expenses.
  2. Collateral Consequences: A conviction begins the process of a criminal history.  While low level misdemeanors may not be subject to jail time, the punishment increases for every conviction until jail time becomes a legitimate possibility.  Additionally, despite the fact that they are “low level misdemeanors” for court purposes, any criminal conviction has the potential to damage employment opportunities, and can even affect your ability to seek housing.  Outside of those consequences, drug convictions can potentially affect your ability to receive financial aid for college, which can limit the possibility of further education to help keep people out of trouble.
  3. Expunctions: often defendants do not realize the requirements to expunge their charges.  Expunctions are only available in limited circumstances, and can be severely affected by the manner in which a case is handled.   The court and the District Attorney cannot give advice on how to remain eligible for an expunction, nor can they prepare anything to seek an expunction for a defendant.
  4. Trial: if you want to try your case, no matter the level of the offense, then get a lawyer.  You may have a great set of facts to work with, but making sure that information is conveyed to the court requires knowledge that most people do not possess.  Additionally, an attorney can assist you in mitigating the consequences of your case even if you are convicted.

All criminal charges are serious because they can adversely affect your future.  Get help, even when the State won’t give it to you – Hire a lawyer for any criminal charge.

Traffic Ticket – Lawyer or not?

One of the most frequent questions that people ask is whether or not they should hire an attorney to handle a traffic ticket, from a seat belt ticket to a speeding charge.  The short answer is yes, but the real question is why?

Traffic offenses bring three different entities into play: the court system, the insurance company and the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.  One single ticket affects your driving future in different ways.

  1. The Court System: In most cases, dealing with a ticket, such as a seatbelt ticket, a speeding ticket, or a ticket involving registration or inspection violations is easily handled.  However, every jurisdiction in NC deals with tickets slightly differently.  Therefore what may work in your hometown may not be as successful in another part of the state.  This brings us to the first reason to hire a local attorney – they know the procedures and processes necessary to bring about the most reasonable outcome for a ticket.  Additionally, an attorney is in a position to understand exactly how the outcome of your ticket can affect your insurance and your driver’s license, something the District Attorney’s Office and the judge cannot tell you.  In North Carolina there are a number of potential outcomes to a traffic ticket including, but not limited to: a dismissal, a reduction in speed, a modification of the original charge, an improper equipment, and “prayer for judgment,” to name a few.  A lawyer is in the best position to assist in determining which, if any of the above, are right for you.
  2. Trial: If you choose to have your ticket tried, then a lawyer is an absolute necessity.  There are particular elements for every charge, including traffic tickets, something the average person isn’t aware of.  Additionally, the average person isn’t familiar with how a trial unfolds – no matter what you have seen on TV.  Between the evidence needed to prove a defendant guilty by the State, to the format of the trial, to the expectation that anyone representing themselves is expected to conduct their defense as a lawyer would, a trial brings a world of challenges that the average person doesn’t know.  In over 10 years of trial experience, I have NEVER seen a pro se defendant successfully win a traffic offense case.  Reason number 2 to hire an attorney.
  3. Insurance: If I had to pick the question asked most often, it is this: “How will this ticket affect my insurance?”  Every traffic offense carries points on your insurance with the exception of an improper equipment or “prayer for judgment.” The question is how many points and how much your insurance could be raised if the ticket is not handled properly.  This is an extremely individualized question, as every insurance policy, no matter the provider, is different.  Obviously your driving history is one factor, but factors can also include other drivers on your policy, their ages, their driving histories, etc. There is no “one size fits all solution” regarding insurance impacts – Reason number 3 to hire an attorney to make sure that you get the best outcome for your case.  I have never met anyone who wanted to pay MORE to their insurance company than they currently do.
  4. DMV: Just as tickets have an impact on your insurance, they have an impact on your driver’s license.  Obviously, the fewer tickets you have had, the less risk you have in losing your driver’s license.  However, certain tickets can automatically suspend your license, no matter your history, such as a Reckless Driving ticket or speeding in excess of 15 mph over the speed limit AND driving faster than 55 mph.  Multiple tickets can result in a suspension as well.  Teenage drivers are particularly at risk, because simply being pulled for certain tickets can suspend their licenses before they ever get to court.  Again, this extremely individualized to your ticket and circumstances, and again, no District Attorney or judge can help you determine what is right for your situation.  Reason number 4 to hire an attorney.

Unfortunately, even after all of the above, people often handle tickets themselves.  The main reason is usually cost.  While an attorney can be an upfront cost in handling your ticket, the money saved in insurance fees over the course of several years will generally outweigh whatever your attorney charges.  Additionally, if your ticket is not handled correctly the first time, the costs in cleaning up the mess can far exceed any fees a lawyer may charge upfront.  For example, the “failure to appear” fee charged by NC Courts is $200 before fines and court costs, and a reinstatement fee from DMV starts at $50 if your license is suspended.  Reason number 5 to hire a lawyer for a “simple traffic ticket.”

If you are faced with a traffic ticket, please seek legal assistance.  Your wallet will thank you.