Arraignment is often the first court hearing in a criminal case. This occurs soon after arrest and posting bail.
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
- Provides dates of proceedings in the future
If the defendant is facing a misdemeanor charge, the judge asks a prosecutor if there is a possibility that the defendant will serve jail time. If the answer is "yes", the judge informs the defendant has the right to legal representation If there is no possibility of jail time, a defendant is not entitled to a public defender. On the other hand, defendants facing felony charges have the right to a lawyer.
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, it's automatically on your criminal record. The judge only has the discretion of sentencing and the defendant loses the opportunity to determine if a strong defense is available.
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.