After getting arrested, booking, and the initial bail phases of the criminal process, the first court hearing which occurs is known as “arraignment.” This court hearing must occur within a reasonable time after arrest since an unreasonable delay violates the defendant’s federal constitutional Sixth Amendment to a speedy trial.
At the arraignment, the criminal court judge will do the following:
- Explains to the defendant his or her charges, the range of possible punishments, the presumption of innocence, and the state’s burden of proof
- Informs the defendant that he or she has the right to an attorney
- Asks the defendant if he or she is pleading “not guilty,” “guilty,” or “no contest”
- Sets bail and any conditions of bail
- Announces dates of future proceedings in the case (e.g. preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, and trial)
If the defendant is facing a misdemeanor charge, the judge asks a representative of the state (prosecutor) if there is a “risk of jail.” If there is such a risk, the judge explains to the defendant the right to have counsel appointed. If there is no risk of jail for a misdemeanor crime, a defendant who cannot afford counsel is not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. For a felony charge, on the other hand, anyone who cannot afford counsel has the right to have counsel appointed.
How Should I Plead?
Once the court has advised the defendant of the charges against him or her, the judge will ask how he or she pleads to those charges—not guilty, guilty, or no contest.
Why is it almost a mistake to simply enter a guilty plea to charges at arraignment? Because as soon as you enter a guilty plea to a charge, you will have a record of conviction for that charge. The judge only has the discretion to decide what sentence to impose, which means the defendant will never have an opportunity to see whether there was a viable defense to his or her charges or whether the District Attorney would have exercised prosecutorial discretion in the defendant’s favor.
In general, defense attorneys often recommend that defendants plead not guilty at arraignment. Upon pleading not guilty, the prosecutor must gather evidence against the defendant and provides the defense a chance to review the evidence, investigate the case, and determine whether the evidence proves that the defendant committed the crime—essentially forcing the state to prove the case against him or her.