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But I thought it was just a ticket!

A common question that has come up recently is whether an offense is serious or not, when a person receives a ticket from the officer for the offense.  Historically, officers would routinely arrest individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses like underage possession of alcohol, possession of marijuana, possession of drug related objects, or shoplifting. However, some of our Cherokee County law enforcement agencies and some of our officers are now issuing individuals citations, instead of arresting individuals, for these and other offenses.

While this may surprise some individuals, this is a completely valid alternative to placing the person accused of the crime under arrest.  It can provide benefits to the person being charged, such as not having to go to jail, not having their vehicle impounded, and not having to pay to bond out of jail. Individuals who are released on a citation are posting their Georgia driver’s license as their bond.  This means that if a person released on a citation does not appear for court, then the person’s driver’s license can be suspended by the court.  In many circumstances, the time and financial costs on an individual who gets arrested can be devastating, especially in a circumstance where no one knows where that person is or how to get them out of jail.

The negative that releasing individuals on citations has had is that many people have a false belief that the offense is not serious.  Often these charges are written on the same form as a traffic ticket, which creates this impression.  In some instances, it leads individuals to believe that they can just resolve their case by paying a fine. This has led to individuals going to court and trying to handle these cases themselves, not realizing how serious the ramifications can be. In some circumstances, young people are not telling their parents about these charges until much later in the court process, which can hurt their ability to have every opportunity available to them.

Even if they are written on a citation, offenses such as underage possession of alcohol, possession of marijuana less than one ounce, possession of drug related objects, or certain shoplifting offenses are misdemeanors in Georgia.  In most circumstances, when a person is convicted of a misdemeanor offense in Georgia the person will end up with a permanent entry on their criminal history. This does not just mean the record at the courthouse. It will appear on the person’s official Georgia criminal history, which is maintained by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  Many court are requiring individuals to be fingerprinted, as part of the resolution of their case to ensure that the case information will appear on the person’s criminal history.

In addition to the criminal record, a court can impose other punishments.  For most misdemeanors a person can be sentenced to up to twelve months in jail or on probation, for each offense.  They can also be ordered to complete non-court run courses, such as a substance abuse evaluation and treatment or a shoplifting course.  A court can order a person to attend sessions of a DUI Court or Drug Court, so a person learns what happens to individuals who have repeat offenses. They can also be ordered to complete community service work, and pay fines.  The maximum fine for most misdemeanors is one thousand dollars, plus surcharges.  In some cases, those surcharges can add another eight or nine hundred dollars on to the fine.

Everyone needs to understand that, even when written on a citation, these offenses are misdemeanors, which can result in serious long term consequences.  A person who receives a citation for a misdemeanor, other than a minor traffic offense, should treat the situation the same way they would have treated it if they had been arrested.  This should include discussing the matter with a law firm focused on criminal defense.  An experienced criminal defense firm can assess the impacts a case can have on the individual, both short term and long tem, and design a plan to help achieve their goals.