After the arrest, booking, and initial bail phases of the criminal process, the first stage of court proceedings which takes place is known as “arraignment.”
During arraignment, an individual charged with a criminal offense is called before a criminal court judge or magistrate, who:
- Reads the criminal charge(s) against the defendant
- Asks the defendant if he or she has an attorney, or needs the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer
- 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 own recognizance
- Announces dates of future proceedings in the case (e.g. preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, and trial)
The arraignment hearing occurs once the prosecuting agency has filed formal charges. When the arraignment takes place is strictly regulated according to Virginia law. For instance, if the defendant is held in jail after being arrested, the arraignment usually takes place the following day the court is open. In some jurisdictions, the inmates are brought over to the courthouse for their arraignment or use video conferencing while remaining in jail. By contrast, if the defendant is released from custody, under his or her own recognizance, by posting bail or using the services of a bail bond agency, the arraignment is often scheduled for a few days later.
Do You Plead at An Arraignment? How Should I Plead?
At an arraignment, defendants typically enter an initial plea of not guilty. However, he or she can usually change a not-guilty plea—and plead guilty or no contest—at some later point in the proceedings, but the same generally isn’t true of a guilty or no contest plea.
The following are several reasons why defendants initially plead not guilty:
- No legal representation – At the start of the case, many defendants do not have anyone representing them. They haven’t received any qualified legal advice to determine the best course of action in their case.
- Unaware of the consequences – Without proper legal guidance, people who’ve been accused of a criminal offense do not understand the potential consequences of conviction. Even if the defendant is aware that he or she might serve time in jail, pay a fine, or lose his or her driver’s license, there are several other consequences to conviction that the court might fail to explain, such as the loss of employment or endangerment of a professional license.
- No discovery – In many cases, defendants do not receive any discovery by the time they’re asked to plead. Not having any access to the police report, photographs, recordings, and the details of the investigation can make it difficult for defendants to know the strength of the prosecution’s case against them.
- No deals – The purpose of plea bargaining—which typically happens after arraignments—is to receive some sort of benefit in exchange for a guilty or no-contest plea. Without a lawyer on your side to negotiate with the prosecution, a defendant who pleads guilty can be subject to the whim of judges and prosecutors.