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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.