What Happens At The First Criminal Hearing?

The first hearing in a criminal case is called the arraignment. The primary purpose of an arraignment is to give the defendant (“the person accused of the crime”) written notice of the charges and for the defendant to enter a plea.

Arraignments are usually held within 48 hours of a person’s arrest, if they’re in jail. Remember, that’s excluding weekends and holidays. If they’ve bailed out or were only issued a citation, the arraignment typically occurs weeks or even months later.

There’s usually a lot going on at the arraignment calendar. There’s a lot of nervous energy, lawyers hustling around, and in-custody defendants being shuffled about the tank where they’re held. Prior to appearing in court, your lawyer, whether a public defender or private counsel, will review with you a document called a complaint. The complaint has your name and date of birth on it. It lists the charges the prosecutor is filing against you. As for each charge, it will also list the exposure, or the amount of time one can receive for being convicted for having violated the code section in question.

Your attorney will also go over your constitutional rights with you. They are the following:

  1. You have the right to remain silent
  2. You have the right to a public trial by jury
  3. You have the right to confront and cross-examine all witnesses against you
  4. You have a right to present evidence on your behalf

After you’ve gone over this and other information, eventually the judge will take the bench. The bailiff will call each case one by one. Your attorney will answer up on your behalf making his or her appearance. The attorney will generally enter a “Not Guilty” plea at arraignment. It’s a very rare situation that a guilty plea would be entered at arraignment. If nothing else for the reason that none of the discovery that is, police reports, photographs, videos, witness statements, etcetera will have yet been produced. It is the government who has the burden of proving that you’re guilty. It’s not your burden to prove that you’re innocent. Therefore, prior to admitting guilt, you’ll want to review the evidence against you and have an opportunity to discuss defense strategies with your lawyer.

After the plea is entered, the judge will address bail. With respect to bail, the judge is primarily concerned with 1. Whether the accused is a flight risk, in other words, are they going to show up to court when ordered to do so, and 2. Whether the person is a danger to the community, that is, is there a risk that the person will be on the streets and harm the public.

The judge will ask if the prosecutor wishes to be heard on bail. At that time, the prosecutor may state a brief overview of the facts of your case. They’ll mention any relevant prior criminal history, or any prior failures to appear. The more serious the charges against you, the higher the bail amount will be. Your defense attorney has an opportunity to respond. Generally, your attorney will mention your family ties in the area, your school and employment history, your lack of criminal record or lack of serious criminal record, and basically any good things they can say to convince the judge that you’ll appear in court and that you’re not a danger to the community, thereby supporting a pitch for lower bail.

After the bail is set, the judge will set future court dates. In a misdemeanor case, a pretrial readiness conference will be set. In a felony case, a pretrial readiness conference and a preliminary hearing will be set. The readiness conference is when the prosecutor and the defense attorney have an opportunity to discuss the case and determine whether a deal can be reached, if more time is needed for investigation or research, or if the case should be set for trial. The preliminary hearing which is scheduled in felony cases, is basically a probable cause hearing.

The reading of the future court dates is usually the last item addressed on the record. Your attorney will then thank the judge excusing him or herself from the courtroom. You’ll likely be in front of the judge for just a couple of minutes. The wait time between when your scheduled to appear and when your case gets called is actually what takes the most time.

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