Given your lack of history, a diversion plan or a compromise of misdemeanor definitely might be an option. I would immediately meet with an attorney to discuss your specific situation. Most criminal defense attorneys will provide a free initial consultation and many offer some form of payment plan. If you are comfortable asking, you could ask friends or family for an attorney recommendation. You can of course also search here at Avvo and other websites.
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A pretrial diversion is something that would be offered by the prosecutor. Typically you would receive this offer prior to any court appearance. Some District Attorneys offices will give you this option at arraignment. There are also a number of options available that would ultimately keep this off of your record. It is possible that your attorney may be able to negotiate something with the prosecutor on short notice as well.
A Compromise of a Misdemeanor is a very good option for a first offense theft charge, if the merchant is willing. This is a little different than a pretrial diversion. It involves paying the store, receiving documentation from the store that they been paid and don't want to prosecute and then asking the court to dismiss the charges. Paying the civil penalty will be necessary to be able to ask for the Misdemeanor Compromise. However, if you just pay the civil penalty first then the store has very little incentive to agree to a compromise of a Misdemeanor.
I realize you're a college student. However, you really need to find a way to retain an attorney to get help with this. Don't take the chance that you will be able to figure out how to do this on your own.
Scott W Lawrence
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There is the option of going with a public defender. Most college students likely qualify for public defenders for criminal law cases.
Shoplifting is a routine charge. For a routine charge, a defendant likely will see no difference in the outcome whether represented by a private attorney or a public defender.
Of course, some persons want to be able to sit in their attorneys' offices for hours and be reassured by the attorneys that the persons will not soon be sitting in jail. Public defenders do not have the time to do that for clients.
If you want a public defender, you need to apply for one. The information on how to apply can be found at the courthouse where your case will be heard.
Talk to your attorney because the options you will have will be relayed to you through your attorney. M.C. is an option and you need to talk with your attorney about doing that if the requirements are meet.
If you have a clean record prior to this there are all sorts of ways to keep your record clean or to get it cleaned later. Pretrial diversion is still an option as well as a civil compromise. There is also DA diversion, which is informal diversion where the case gets continued for a period of time. If you stay out of trouble the DA dismisses the case. Then there is a plea agreement reducing the case to an infraction-- not the best option at this point. You need legal representation one way or the other. There are too many options for a non-lawyer to figure out.
It appears to me that you may qualify for a public defender. I'd start there. At arraignment the court will ask you if you can afford a lawyer. If you cannot the court will have you fill out a financial statement. If you qualify you'll get a public defender or a private lawyer paid with public funds. If you don't have the money you are entitled to legal representation on a misdemeanor whether you can afford it or not.
You can always change lawyers later if you feel you are not getting the proper representation or attention from a publicly appointed lawyer, and, can afford it later down the line.
Every case is different. Specific facts of your case must be applied before relying on an answer to a general question. The answer given here is a general statement of the law on the issue that you presented in your question.