After the arrest, booking, and initial bail phases of the criminal process, you are typically scheduled for arraignment. As a general rule of thumb, if you could be potentially spending time in jail upon conviction, you usually will have an arraignment.
At arraignment, an individual charged with a crime is called before a judge, who does all of the following:
- Reads the criminal charge(s) against the individual (also known as the defendant)
- Asks the defendant if he or she has a lawyer, or requires the assistance of a court-appointed attorney
- Asks the defendant how he or she “pleads to” the criminal charges (e.g. guilty, not guilty, or no contest)
- Chooses whether to alter the bail amount or to release the defendant on his or her recognizance
- Determines future proceedings in the case (e.g. preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, and trial)
How Should I Plea?
Once the court has advised the defendant of the charges against him/her, the judge will ask how he/she pleads to those charges. At this point, the defendant is expected to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
The following is a breakdown of all of the available pleas:
- Not guilty – Simply put, a not guilty plea means that the defendant is going to make the state prove the case against him/her. In most cases, criminal defendants often plead not guilty at arraignment. Even if the defendant feels like he/she is guilty of the crime, defense lawyers typically recommend that defendants plead not guilty. Once a not-guilty plea is entered, the prosecution is required to gather the evidence against the defendant and provides the defense ample time to review the evidence, investigate the case, and figure out if the evidence proves that the defendant committed the crime.
- Guilty – A guilty plea means that the defendant admits to committing the crime. In cases involving minor crimes, the judge may sentence the defendant at arraignment. In cases involving serious crimes, on the other hand, the judge will most likely set a sentencing hearing and request a pre-sentence report.
- No contest (“nolo contendere”) – A no contest plea means that the defendant is not admitting guilt, but will not contest the charges. However, the court treats such a plea similar to pleading guilty. The benefits of pleading no contest include not making the facts of the case public and ensuring that the plea cannot be used as evidence against the defendant in a civil case.
Although you are legally entitled to a court-appointed lawyer during a criminal case, it is wise to discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your community. Having counsel represent you at arraignment can reduce the stress of the arraignment process for you and ultimately might make a difference in what conditions of release the court imposes.