Whether you are talking about a ticket for not wearing a seat belt or a murder charge, the first official hearing you are going to have after being charged is an arraignment.
An arraignment hearing is a formal presentation of your charges, and the hearing at which you are given information about all the rights that you have. You also plead guilty or not guilty, and might have the opportunity to negotiate your charges with the prosecutor. At the arraignment hearing, there are no witnesses, so the fact that the officer or the victim isn’t there doesn’t matter.
First and foremost, you have the right to have an attorney represent you at any stage of the proceedings. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you at no cost to you if you qualify, though in some circumstances there is a fifty dollar application fee. Sometimes this attorney works for a public defender’s office, and sometimes they are private attorneys that contract with the Court. Either way, they are licensed, experienced, ‘real’ attorneys who know how the Court works. Bear in mind that the Court doesn’t just automatically appoint an attorney – you have to ask for one, and if you want a public defender, you are going to have to disclose a good bit of financial information. The taxpayers don’t pay for your lawyer unless you are truly in need.
There are other rights that you have, including but not limited to:
- The right to a jury trial (this is true in nearly all cases, but not all – certain city or county municipal ordinances do not give rise to the right to a jury trial);
- The right to remain silent;
- The right to being presumed innocent;
- The right to appeal; and
- The right to file a habeus corpus petition.
Some other things that you will be notified about during your arrangement are ways in which a plea (if you choose to make one) might (or might not) affect you. For example, if you are on probation or parole for another offense, your plea might affect your status on probation or parole. If you aren’t an American Citizen, whether or not you are a legal resident, your plea to certain charges might affect your ability to remain in this country.
If you do make a plea at arraignment (or at any time, really) the judge should make sure that you haven’t been promised anything or threatened in any way to make that plea. Also, the judge should be sure that you aren’t under the influence of any drugs or alcohol that would interfere with your ability to understand what is going on. This doesn’t just mean illegal drugs – sometimes people take prescription medication (or Benadryl or NyQuil) that affects their ability to make rational decisions.
There is a video put out by the Municipal Court Judge’s Association that does a great job of explaining all of this in more detail. Click here for a link to the video.
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here