Arraignments - An Overview
If you (or someone you know) were arrested for a crime of any sort, the first time you’ll likely step into the courtroom concerning that arrest will be for the arraignment. The arraignment occurs after the arrest and booking (and bail, if applicable). It’s the first stage at which the judge (or magistrate) reads the crime alleged against you in open court. In essence, the arraignment is where you learn about what you did and why you were arrested.
The arraignment is also the first time that you (or someone you know) will be called a defendant, i.e. the accused. The state, i.e. government, acts as the complainant against the defendant and will generally be represented by a prosecutor, police officer, or other individual with authority to represent the state.
The judge will tell the defendant his or her rights and responsibilities, and ask the defendant certain questions including how he or she wants to plead and whether he or she has an attorney. The questions the judge asks the defendant are important and should not be taken lightly. In fact, how a defendant pleads can dictate the whole outcome of the case. That’s why it’s important to seek an experienced attorney to deal with the particular issues of the case.
With that said, it’s also important to understand how the arraignment process works. In this article, we explore what things you’ll likely hear at an arraignment, how pleading works at an arraignment, and how the right to counsel is generally brought up.
Next, we’ll take a look at the different things you’ll likely hear at an arraignment.
What You Will Hear at Arraignment
Arraignments can vary from state to state, court to court, judge to judge, and case to case. However, with that said, judges (and magistrates) generally follow similar procedures in conducting their arraignments.
Many arraignments are often lumped together in municipal and county court rooms. For example, judges might hear arraignments on Thursdays at 9 a.m. each week.
When you actually arrive at the courthouse, you’ll likely sit out in the hallway until the bailiff (or an administrator) signals for individuals to enter the courtroom for their arraignments. In the courtroom, there will generally be a judge, bailiff, administrative support staff, and someone from the government to represent it against you.
The judge will generally give a brief overview about your rights and responsibilities at this initial stage of the criminal process. Then, the judge will go through his or her docket, i.e. file with the cases of individuals scheduled to be in court that day. The judge or his or her staff will then start to call out the cases one by one. You’ll sit in the courtroom until your case is called. Once your case it called, the judge (or staff) will generally do the following:
- Read the criminal charge(s) against you, i.e. person accused (now called the defendant for the first time)
- Ask you if you understand the nature of the charges
- Ask you if you have an attorney or need an attorney
- If you are indigent, i.e. cannot afford an attorney, the state will provide an attorney
- Ask you if you want to plead (i) guilty, (ii) not guilty or (iii) no contest
- (We’ll discuss the nature of these pleadings on the next page)
- If bail was set, the judge will determine whether to alter bail and/or release the defendant without bail (but with the expectation to return to court on his or her own)
- Announce future dates of the case, including the preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, and trial
The case will proceed depending on how you respond to the judge’s questions, which we’ll discuss on the next page.
Next, let's briefly talk about your right to counsel at arraignment.
Right to Counsel
At arraignment, the judge will ask the defendant whether he or she has an attorney or needs one. If a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the government is required to provide an attorney to the defendant for free (at the government’s expense – and paid by taxpayers) if that defendant faces the possibility of any jail time (even if only for 1 day). This has nothing to do with whether the defendant actually goes to jail or not. In fact, many defendants don’t go to jail. This simply means that if the defendant might go to jail, he or she is allowed an attorney.
The right to counsel is based on interpretations of the United States Constitution by the U.S. Supreme Court (there is actually no direct language to a right to counsel in the Constitution). The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted that the right to counsel is based on the 6th and 14th Amendments, and that a defendant is entitled to counsel whenever he or she may be deprived of liberty. Going to jail is a prime example of being deprived of liberty. So, that’s why if a defendant even faces the possibility of going to jail, he or she is entitled by law to an attorney.
In short, you should recognize that the right to counsel touches upon both criminal law and constitutional law.
NOTE: The right to counsel is also mentioned to a defendant when he or she receives his Miranda Warnings, which generally occurs shortly after the arrest.
Next, we’ll take a look at the three main types of arraignment pleas allowed by law.
When the judge asks the defendant how he or she wants to plead, the defendant can choose from the following 3 options:
- Not guilty
- No Contest
Let’s go over each of these 3 pleadings in a little more detail.
1. "Not Guilty"
If the defendant pleads not guilty, that means the defendant is currently stating that he or she is not guilty of the charges made against him or her by the state. The judge will then set the case for a preliminary hearing or trial depending on the nature and complexity of the case. For example, more complex cases with many legal and factual details may likely be set for a preliminary hearing on certain matters of the case. The preliminary hearing is like a "trial before a trial" where certain aspects of the case, like what evidence is admissible, will be tried before the judge. However, simpler cases may just be set for trial. The judge (or staff) will then select a date for the preliminary hearing or trial (and often make sure that the defendant can make it to court on that date). The defendant will be expected to be at the preliminary hearing or trial.
If the defendant pleads guilty, then the judge will usually ask his staff (or read for him or herself) the exact charge(s) brought against the defendant. As long as the charges adequately make out a cause of action that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime(s), the judge will likely find the defendant guilty. The judge will generally ask the defendant and/or his attorney to state the defendant’s story. This is called allocution and requires that the defendant's story properly matches the charges against him or her. If a defendant fails to properly allocute (e.g. does not take responsibility for his or her acts), the judge may refuse the guilty plea and require a trial on the case.
The defendant will generally explain to the judge why the crime occurred and may ask the judge for leniency based on a clean past criminal record and other mitigating factors, i.e. other things to take into consideration. The judge will then either make an immediate decision and issue the penalty(-ies) associated with the crime or take the matter under advisement to issue his or her decision at a later date (usually in a written decision). The more complex the case the more likely the judge will take the matter under advisement to issue his or her decision in written form. Judges generally do this in order to make sure that they fully understand the facts of the case in applying the law to the facts.
3. "No Contest"
The defendant can also plead no contest (called nolo contendere in Latin) to the criminal charges. A "no contest" plea is similar in many respects to a "guilty" plea, but does offer some "technical" protections that a "guilty" plea does not. Still, many individuals wrongfully think that a no contest plea somehow relieves them of the charges. That’s not true! In fact, a defendant will face the same immediate penalties for the crime under a "no contest" plea as he or she would in a "guilty" plea. Also, a court can generally consider the facts of a "no contest" plea in future criminal cases (depending on the particular rules of the court and level of the crime).
With that said, there are certain "technical aspects" of a no contest plea that generally differ from a "guilty" plea. For example, the facts in a "no contest" plea generally cannot be used against the defendant as admissions in a civil case concerning those same facts. What does this mean? If you recall the O.J. Simpson trials, there were 2 cases involving the same facts: (i) the criminal case and (ii) civil case. The criminal case was the state against O.J., while the civil case concerned the family of those murdered against O.J. So, for example, if O.J. plead “no contest” to a charge in his criminal case, that generally could not be used as an admission in his civil case.
Now, if you’re a little lost, don’t worry about it. The differences between a "no contest" and "guilty" plea deal with legal technical aspects, which are best left for a lawyer to determine on a case by case basis. With that said, it’s generally better to plead "no contest" than "guilty" because it may help to protect you in certain ways in the future.
NOTE: A defendant can later change his or her "not guilty" plea to a "guilty" or a "no contest" plea. However, once the defendant pleads "guilty" or "no contest" he or she cannot change the plea to "not guilty."
Finally, let’s conclude this article with a few key points.
In this article, we explored what you’ll likely hear at an arraignment, how pleading works at an arraignment, and how the right to counsel is generally brought up in arraignments. Now, you should have a better understanding of what to expect at your arraignment.
If you can afford an attorney, it is generally advisable to have your attorney present at the arraignment. At the very least, you’ll likely want to speak with an attorney prior to your arraignment so you know what way to properly plead your case. And if you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you.
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