Arraignment is for general purposes, the first court date an individual will have after being arrested. While some counties hold an Examining Trial for Bail purposes within 48 hours of arrest before a magistrate, the arraginment will typically be the first court hearing before a judge. While each county differs slightly, three main things will happen at the arraignment.
Confirmation of Identity – The Judge and court will address the defendant by name and identifying information, in order to ensure they have the correct person.
Defendant Informed of Charging Document – This is where the court will inform the defendant of the charges and why he or she is in court. By this time, it should be apparent for the defendant, but the tradition comes from long ago when the King and courts of nobility routinely arrested people and held them without reason, refusing to tell the arrestees why they were being detained. Formally, the Court is to read word for word from the charging document, however, the defense attorney will normally waive the formal reading, since it is merely a triviality. The defendant and attorney will receive a copy of the charging document, called an information or complaint.
How do you Plead? The Judge will ask the defendant, normally though the defense attorney, how the defendant wishes to plead. The answers are not guilty, guilty, or no contest (nolo contendere, however generally that plea is reserved for non-criminal matters only). Unless there is a special reason to plead at arraignment, the normal course of action is to enter a plea of not guilty, regardless of whether the defendant desires a full trial or wants to plead guilty at a later date. If the latter is true, the defendant will consult with the attorney concerning the charges and spend time plea bargaining with the District Attorney or Judge in order to come to an agreement as to the outcome of the case and a date upon which the guilty plea may be entered.
Should I have an Attorney Present at my Arraignment? Do I need to Hire one for the court date? The short answer is no, you do not need an attorney, but the wise choice is to have one present at all court appearances. Often times at arraignment (especially on lower level charges) the Distrct Attorney or Judge may offer you a plea bargain right away. For instance, suppose you are being arraigned on a petty theft for shoplifing from Target. You get an offer for 3 years probation, $1500 fines, and 300 hours of community service. Do you take that? You may feel the offer is great since there is no jail time associated with the offer, but you have no way to compare that offer to other available options. Having an attorney present at your arraignment, as well as all court dates, will help you in making an evaulation as to whether the offer is fair or not. In the above example, an attorney may tell you that probation for so long is too high, and that other clients have been getting 120 hours of service. Your attorney can argue and may get you the better deal. Conversely, you may be given an offer that is extremely low compared to the normal sentencing in the court. The attorney could then advise you to accept the offer while it is still on the table.