Once you have been charged with a criminal offense, your case will likely be set to what is called an arraignment. In most cases, your arraignment will be the first time you go to court to face your criminal charge. An arraignment court date is designed so you know what the charges are that you are facing and to explain what your choices are going forward. Each court is a little different, but most arraignments consist of you appearing in front of a judge and the judge telling you what the charges are that you are facing.
In many courts, you will have an opportunity to speak with a prosecutor about your charges. Sometimes the prosecutor will have a plea offer for you that you can choose to accept. If you accept the plea offer you will go back in front of the judge, plead guilty and the case is over.
If you are eligible for a court appointed a defense attorney, either the judge or the prosecutor will advise you of this. To be eligible for a court appointed defense attorney, generally there are two requirements. First, the prosecutor must be seeking jail in your matter. If the prosecutor is seeking a fine, most courts will not give you a court appointed defense attorney. The second factor is that you must meet certain income restrictions to qualify for a court appointed defense attorney. In many courts you will have to fill out a financial worksheet that the judge or court will use to determine if you meet the requirements to have a court appointed defense attorney appointed in your matter.
Should you plead guilty at your arraignment? For most people, my answer is no. The only time it may be a good idea to plead guilty at your arraignment is if you know for sure that what the prosecutor is offering is a good deal and you are ok with accepting it. For example, if you have a criminal speeding charge and the prosecutor is offering to let you plead to a civil offense instead of the criminal one and give you a fine. If you are ok with this, you might want to plead guilty. Even in the above example do you know the impact a civil speeding plea will have on your driver license? Will there be points against your license? Will your license get suspended? Are there mandatory classes? Hopefully you are seeing my point that there are a lot of things to consider when accepting a plea.
The main reason I generally tell people not to plead guilty at their arraignment is because most times they are there without a defense lawyer. Most of the time the case is new and many people have not had time to hire a defense lawyer. It is almost always a better idea to plead not guilty and have time to discuss the matter with an experienced defense lawyer. A good defense lawyer can see possible issues with your case that you will not. Is the plea offer you are getting from the prosecutor the best plea possible? What collateral consequences are you facing if you plead guilty? These are all questions a good defense lawyer can answer for you.
In some cases, you may not be able to plead guilty at your arraignment even if you want to. There are many reasons this could happen, but the most common reason is that the prosecutor doesn’t have all of the discovery in your case yet. They may not have the full police report in your case. Another reason is if there is an alleged victim in your case and the prosecutor needs to give that victim time in order to comply with victim’s rights rules.
Generally, when you plead not guilty at your arraignment, your case will be set to something commonly known as a pretrial conference. The pretrial conference can be scheduled from several weeks to several months in the future, depending on when the court is scheduling matters. Every court is a little different in how it schedules matters, but expecting that your pretrial will be set two to four weeks out from your arraignment is reasonable.