Arraignment is the initial court appearance a person charged with a crime will make in criminal court. At the misdemeanor arraignment, the judge will call the case, and the defendant, or the defendant’s lawyer will come before the court. If the person is represented by a private attorney, s/he will not usually have to be present for the arraignment if his or her lawyer appears and the charges do not include domestic violence or certain DUI offenses. If the person is unrepresented or plans to be represented by a public defender, personal appearance is almost always required. Of course this applies only in misdemeanor cases, and a client should check with his or her attorney before not coming to court. Your presence may be required or desirable at arraignment even if you have a private attorney.
After the judge calls the case, the defendant and/or lawyer will come before the judge and the judge will go through a procedural checklist. Included in this checklist are: determining whether an interpreter is needed; making sure the defendant’s name is spelled properly on the complaint; informing the defendant of his or her constitutional rights; ascertaining whether the defendant wishes to obtain private counsel or wishes to be appointed a public defender if qualified; hearing requests for bail reduction and for own-recognizance release; and there are several fact-specific procedures a judge must go through if special situations arise. If a defendant wishes to hire an attorney, s/he must be granted a continuance and be given a reasonable period of time by the court to hire one before entering a plea.
The most important functions of the arraignment are informing the defendant of the charges against him or her, and the entry of plea. Although technically police officers are required to inform an arrestee of the offenses for which they are believed to have committed, in practice they sometimes fail to do so. Additionally, although officers may arrest a person for certain crimes, the person is not technically charged with a crime until the prosecutor files a complaint with the court. This complaint may charge different crimes than what the person was originally arrested for. Sometimes the charges may be lesser offenses, while other times the prosecutor increases the severity of the offense charged or adds counts or charges. This happens for many reasons, too numerous to go into detail here. The complaint is the formal charging document in California misdemeanor cases. In other words, it says specifically what the charges against the person are. Once the person receives the complaint and/or the judge reads the charges to the person, the person is asked how s/he pleads (except in certain circumstances). At this point the person may choose to enter a not guilty plea, guilty, or no contest plea (in most cases).
The particular plea a person enters determines how the case progresses. If the plea entered is a not guilty plea, the judge will set the case for trial within the statutorily prescribed period (w/i 30 days if the person is in custody and 45 days if out of custody) unless the person waives adherence to the statutory time period (waives time). If the person waives time, then the case can be continued for a pretrial conference and the trial can be set for a date outside the previously-mentioned time period. If the person chooses to enter a guilty or no contest plea, the judge will advise the defendant of his or her rights and after the person has been apprised of, and waives certain rights, the court will usually sentence the person.
In summary, arraignment is a court hearing at which the judge will advise the defendant of constitutional rights, tell the defendant what s/he is charged with, and the defendant will enter a plea. Although a person can appear without an attorney for arraignment, it is almost always inadvisable to do so. For more information about arraignments and to speak with a local criminal defense lawyer about your pending case, call the Law Offices of Matthew S. Luzaich.