A criminal case, either a misdemeanor or a felony, is resolved by a dismissal of the charges, an entry of a plea of guilty or no contest, or a verdict (of not guilty or guilty) after the Defendant has plead not guilty and proceeded to a trial of the case by the court or jury. A jury must reach a unanimous verdict (12 of 12 in a felony, or 6 of 6 in a misdemeanor) or the case can be retried at a later date. This is often referred to as a ‘hung jury’.
In Texas, felonies, the most serious of charges, are broken down into five different categories: capital murder, first degree felony, second degree felony, third degree felony and state jail felony, sometimes called a fourth degree felony.
Clearly, Capital Murder is the most serious charge a Defendant can face, since it carries the potential for a sentence of death or life in prison. This charge is reserved for specific fact situations enumerated by statute, such as Murder of a child under the age of 6, Murder of more than one person, Murder during the commission of other felony offenses, etc.
First degree felonies carry a sentence of five years to 99 years, or life in prison, and/or a $10,000 fine. First degree offenses include Aggravated Assault on a Peace Officer, Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child, Murder, Possession of more than 200 grams of certain Controlled Substance, and Aggravated Kidnapping. The maximum term of probation on first, second and third degree felonies is 10 years. In addition, in certain categories of offenses, such as Aggravated Robberies, and Aggravated Assaults, only a jury - and not a judge - can grant probation for the Defendant. In some sexual offenses involving children, even a jury cannot give probation.
A conviction for certain aggravated offenses also means that the Defendant will not be eligible for release on parole until he has served one-half of his prison sentence. In other cases, the Defendant can become eligible for release on parole when the time served, plus credits, equals one-quarter of the original sentence.
Second degree felonies, such as Burglary of a Habitation, Sexual Assault of a Child, Intoxication Manslaughter, Aggravated Assault, etc., carry a possible term of two years to 20 years in the penitentiary, and a fine up to $10,000.
Third degree felonies, such as Burglary of a Building, Indecency with a Child by Exposure, Assault causing Serious Bodily Injury, Failure to Register as a Sex Offender, and third or subsequent DWI’s carry a term of two to 10 years, and a maximum fine of $10,000.
State jail felonies include offenses such as Possession of a small amount (less than one gram) of certain Controlled Substances, Interference with Child Custody and Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle, have a maximum term of two years in a state jail facility, and a maximum fine of up to $10,000.
The District Court system has rules that are more rigidly enforced than in the misdemeanor courts. Because the stakes are so much higher, (death penalty, prison time, long probations), the proceedings are more formal. Punctuality, appearance and respect for the court are a must.
In Texas, misdemeanor offenses are broken down into two systems: the “higher charges,” Class A and Class B, and the lower, Class C offenses.
Class A misdemeanor offenses, which are heard in the County Courts-at-Law, have a maximum sentence of up to one year in county jail and a fine not to exceed $4,000. Class A offenses include Assaults with Bodily Injury or Assault involving Family Violence, first DWI with BAC<.15, second DWIs, Criminal Mischief or Theft of Property with a value of $750 to $2,500, and Burglary of a Vehicle.
Class B misdemeanors, which carry a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000, include Criminal Mischief or Theft of $100 to $750, first DWI's, Driving While License Suspended, etc. Class B misdemeanors are also heard in County Courts-at-Law.
Class C misdemeanors carry a penalty of fine only and include traffic; offenses, Public Intoxication, Minors in Possession of Alcohol, Disorderly Conduct offenses such as Fighting, Unreasonable Noise, etc. These cases are heard either in Municipal Court or in the Justice of the Peace courts depending on the agency for which the ticketing officer works.
Whether the Defendant is charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, many first-time offenders in Travis County can expect to be offered probation or a deferred adjudication. The maximum term of probation for felonies is 10 years.
The maximum term of probation for Class A and B misdemeanor is two years. Because Class C misdemeanors are fine only offenses, there is no probation, although a Defendant may enter into a deferred prosecution or deferred disposition agreement, which generally call for the individual to remain trouble free, without supervision, from 90 days to one year.
There also are two types of probation offered in the State of Texas: regular probation, which entails the entry of a judgment of guilt against the defendant, and Deferred Adjudication, which means that the judgment of guilt is deferred and the Defendant is placed on probation. Under a Deferred Adjudication, if the Defendant successfully completes his term of probation, no conviction is entered on his or her record. In these types of cases, the Defendant can say that he was not convicted of the offense. However, there still will be a public record of his arrest and of the proceedings against him, including the fact that he was placed on probation.
Other ways to dispose of misdemeanor cases include Pre-Trial Diversion, a program run by the County Attorney’s Office, or Deferred Disposition or Deferred Prosecution. Under these arrangements, the Defendant usually admits the bad act and does some combination of paying a fee, undergoing counseling, taking an educational class, performing community service, and staying out of trouble for a certain period of time. At the end of the deferral period, the case is closed. In most of these instances the records of the arrest and prosecution can be expunged.
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