The Arraignment

What will happen when you first go to court? What will you have to say or do. The following will help to explain what generally occurs at your first appearance.

You have been arrested and are facing your first appearance before the court. Likely, you are wondering what will happen when you go to court? What will you have to say or do? Some of you may be anxious and nervous. While each and every case varies, the following will help to explain what generally occurs at your first appearance before the Court to put you more at ease about the process you are about to begin.

This first appearance is called an “arraignment.” At this hearing, the District Attorney will present the “complaint”, the formal charges against you. The charges may be misdemeanors (with penalties of up to one year in county jail or a fine or both) or felonies (which carry state prison sentences).

At the arraignment, pleas are entered and bail may also be set. Typically, when you are represented by counsel, your attorney will do most of the talking and, if you do have to address the court, it will likely be simple “yes” or “no” answers. Many defendants worry about what they may have to say or explain to the court and it is helpful to know that your role is very limited at this hearing (hopefully this calms some of your nerves).

Whether you are innocent or ready to profess your guilt and settle your case, at the arraignment, pleas of “not guilty” will be entered. Many times, in higher profile cases, I hear the media portray this entry of a “not guilty” plea as if it is “shocking” that this person is denying guilt. This is misleading as it is very rare to ever do anything but plead not guilty at this first appearance. Think about it. Our system is built on the premise that one is innocent until proven guilty. The arraignment is the first appearance before the court, the first time you are presented with your charges, and the first time any information is provided about the crimes you are accused of committing; it only makes sense that, with the burden on the prosecution to prove your guilt, that “not guilty” pleas are entered.

Bail may also be addressed at the arraignment. Courts look to two main factors when setting bail- the risk to public safety if you are released and the risk of flight/likelihood you will return to court. This is one area that you can play a significant role in helping your attorney prepare to address the court. Gathering your “life” history- residence history, familial connections to the community, employment history, letters of support from friends and family- will aid your attorney in packaging a stronger bail argument.

In most courts, after the pleas are entered and bail is set, a future court date will be entered. Whether you are facing a misdemeanor or felony, you have certain rights to hearings and/or trial in a certain time period. Your attorney, or the court, will explain these rights to you. Most of the time, if you are out of custody, you will waive these rights and proceed on what is called a “time-waived basis.” However, if you are in custody, you and your attorney will have to discuss the pros and cons to proceeding within the given time frame or waiving the time in order to prepare and investigate a more thorough defense. These issues are all determined on a case-by- case basis

Once the above issues are resolved, a future court hearing will be set which will be an opportunity for your attorney to discuss the specifics of your case with the district attorney and the court.

Sara Rief has devoted her entire legal career to the practice of criminal law. Sara graduated with honors from the University of Pacific in 1999. She received an academic scholarship to attend Golden Gate University Law School. During law school, Sara received several academic awards and was an appellate Advocacy Semi-Finalist. She also receive the Faculty Award from the University of San Francisco Summer Trial Advocacy Program.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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