Criminal Law


PLEASE NOTE: The information contained in this webpage has been prepared for educational purposes only. Communication of information through this webpage does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, is not intended to solicit clients or to provide legal services as to any particular matter, and is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice or provide a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. It is important for you to consult with an attorney regarding your rights and responsibilities in a particular situation.



University Student Legal Services can represent some criminal cases including misdemeanors, traffic violations aggravated traffic matters, and expungements (record clearing). If any of these pertain to your situation please make an appointment so that we can go over your case and the options available to you. Below is some information about these areas:



Small crimes are often referred to as misdemeanors and have three levels. USLS can help students with most misdemeanor offenses.


A petty misdemanor is a lesser legal violation.
In Minnesota a petty misdemeanor is a violation in which the sentence may not exceed a fine of $300. In Minnesota a petty misdemeanor does not constitute a crime. No jail or workhouse time can be imposed as punishment for a petty misdemeanor. It is important for individuals found guilty of only petty misdemeanors to know that they can truthfully state on employment and/or educational applications that they have not been convicted of a crime.


Some of the more common traffic petty misdemeanors are:
  • Speeding
  • Stop sign violations
  • Parking tickets
  • Improper turning and lane changes
  • Expired driver's license or license plates
  • Minor automobile equipment violations


If a driver is charged with a third moving traffic violation within a one-year period, the offense will normally be charged as a misdemeanor rather than a petty misdemeanor. Also, if the officer feels your driving conduct endangered persons or property, you will be charged with a misdemeanor. Most non-traffic offenses are also charged as misdemeanors rather than petty misdemeanors.


A misdemeanor, on the other hand, is a lesser criminal act.
A misdemeanor is a crime which carries a maximum sentence of $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail. This can include things such as:
  • Driving without a license
  • Simple assault
  • First-time DWI
  • Theft of property less than $500
  • First crime


When charged with a misdemeanor, you have rights.
  1. Presumption of innocence.
  2. Requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt by the State before a person can be found guilty.
  3. Right to compel the attendance of witnesses to testify in behalf of the accused through the subpoena power of the Court.
  4. Right to testify in own behalf.
  5. Right to remain silent including not testifying at trial.
  6. Right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses.
  7. Right to a court trial (before a Judge). There is no right to a jury trial in petty misdemeanor cases.
  8. Right to legal counsel (normally at own expense in petty misdemeanors).
  9. Right to an appeal if found guilty.


If you admit guilt or are found guilty, your fine is usually pre-determined.
Judges have instituted pre-established fine schedules to create uniformity in their sentencing. They are not, however, required to follow these fee schedules and may deviate based on the facts of the case and your previous record. These fines are often printed on the ticket you are given. You can pay these fines instead of making a court appearance, just note paying a fine constitutes a plea of guilty.


Talking to a hearing officer can reduce your fine.
Some counties, including Hennepin and Ramsey, have offices where you can talk with a hearing officer to negotiate your case through informal discussion. If you can show extenuating circumstances to a sympathetic officer they may reduce your fine or remove it all together.


Visit one of the following locations for Violation Bureau offices in the Twin Cities: In Minneapolis, the office is on the first floor of the Government Center. In St. Paul, the office is in Room 126 of the Ramsey County Courthouse. Normally, no appointment is needed to meet with a hearing officer.


Guilt in a petty misdemeanor can cost money even though you have not been convicted of a crime.
If a court finds you guilty of a petty misdemeanor, a $300 surcharge can be imposed to cover the court's cost of prosecution.


Additionally, moving traffic violations can result in increased auto insurance rates. Equipment violations and parking tickets normally do not affect insurance rates. Numerous moving violations can result in a suspension of driving privileges by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.


If the court convicts you, they will send a record to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. This department will add it to your driving record.


Aggravated Traffic Violations: General traffic matters, like speeding tickets, often do not need legal help. Simply visit the Violation Bureau offices and see a hearing officer. Significant traffic violations, like failure to stop your car for the police, can result in serious criminal charges. They are not petty misdemeanors and can affect your criminal record. In these more serious cases (if you are an eligible fee paying student), please contact us and set up an appointment to determine if we can help you.



Certain offenses may be expunged (sealed) under Minnesota law.  Pleading guilty or paying a ticket results in a permanent conviction that may disqualify you from having your records sealed.  Contact USLS today to discuss how a charge or case might impact you long term. For additional information see the MN Council on Crime and Justice.



What to Do When Arrested and in Custody
If you have been picked up by the police, it is important to abide by the following rules and tips:


DO try to stay cool and calm; DO NOT resist arrest or attempt to escape.


DO contact an attorney as soon as possible; DO NOT volunteer any information to the police, except for your name and address, until you have consulted an attorney.


DO try to remember facts, names, places, and times; DO NOT give your consent to a search of your home or motor vehicle.


  • You have a right to remain silent. You may remain completely silent or answer some questions and not others.
  • You have a right to speak with your lawyer at the place where you are being held.
  • You have a right to telephone your lawyer, your friends, or your family to notify them of your arrest.
  • You have a right to have a lawyer appointed for you if you cannot afford one.
  • You have a right to have your lawyer present if you are placed in a police line-up.



The Court Hearing Process
There are four essential steps to the Minnesota court hearing process:


First, the Arraignment
Your first scheduled court appearance before a judge is called an arraignment. You will be asked how you wish to plead: "guilty" or "not guilty." If you plead guilty, you are admitting the charges against you, and the judge will impose the sentence. If you plead not guilty, the matter will be set for a court trial at a later date. This court trial is before a judge, not a jury.


Second, Negotiations Before Trial
Sometimes, before trial, the prosecuting attorney will attempt to resolve the case with the defendant through discussions and a plea negotiation. If this occurs, you should make sure that you fully understand the proposed negotiation before agreeing to it.


Third, the Trial
The normal order of events at a trial is as follows:
  1. The state will give a brief outline of the evidence they will present.
  2. Your defense will give a brief outline of the evidence they will present.
  3. The state will present its case, and its witnesses will provide testimony.
  4. Your defense will present your case, and your witnesses will provide testimony.  
  5. The state will summarize its case in a closing.
  6. The defense will make its closing.


If a person is found to be "not guilty" by the Court, there is no conviction and there can be no sentence. Sometimes no witnesses appear at trial for the State. If this occurs, the defendant should ask the judge to dismiss the case against him "with prejudice" (forever) because of the State's "failure to prosecute." The judge will normally grant this request.


Fourth, Sentencing
If you are found guilty, normally the Court will consider the circumstances of the offense, your past record, and any other helpful information before passing sentence. You should be prepared to present such information to the judge in an objective manner before the sentencing occurs. If you are found guilty, you may have the right to appeal your case to an appellate court where the conviction will be reviewed. The appeal must be made within ten days. Normally, it is advisable to seek the services of an attorney when appealing any case.


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