How Should I Plead at My Arraignment?

An arraignment is a court proceeding at which a criminal defendant is formally advised of the charges, the range of possible punishments, the presumption of innocence, the state’s burden of proof, the right to a jury trial and the right to counsel.

All criminal charges involve an arraignment. This court hearing typically occurs within a reasonable time following arrest. An unreasonable delay violates the defendant’s federal constitutional 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial.

Representation at an arraignment for misdemeanors vs. felonies

Some defendants may not have anyone representing them or received any qualified legal advice.

The court will ask a representative of the state if there is a “risk of jail” at an arraignment for a misdemeanor charge. If there is a risk of jail, the court explains to the defendant the right to have counsel appointed, if he or she cannot afford counsel, and the process for applying for appointed counsel. If there is no risk of jail on a misdemeanor offense, a defendant who cannot afford an attorney is not entitled to an appointed attorney right against self-incrimination and the charges against them, and is then asked to enter a plea to the charges.

For a felony charge, anyone who cannot afford counsel has the right to have counsel appointed. After the charges have been read and explained, the defendant is asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. People who don’t have any experience with the criminal justice system often wonder how they can legitimately enter a plea of not guilty if they in fact did what they are charged with doing. Instead, it is a declaration that the defendant wishes to stand on the presumption of innocence and require the state to bring forward its proof.

The defendant can plead “not guilty,” “guilty,” or “no contest.” So how should you plead?

Why defendants initially plead “not guilty”

A not guilty plea simply means that the criminal defendant is going to make the state prove the case against them. It is often wise that defendants plead not guilty at arraignment—even if they think they are guilty.

Below are some reasons why defendants initially plead “not guilty”.

  • No lawyer. If defendants may plead “not guilty” if they haven’t received any qualified legal advice and hasn’t heard from a lawyer about potential defenses or errors by the police or prosecution, or the tendencies of different judges and prosecutors.
  • No discovery. Oftentimes, defendants haven’t received any discovery by the time they’re asked to plead. The police report is usually the most important part of discovery in the early going. Without it, defendants may have little idea of the strength of the evidence against them. And even with the police report, but without further discovery (like photographs, recordings, and more) and investigation (including consultation with experts), the defendant still might not know the strength of the prosecution’s case. Police reports often contain limited information—they also can include misinformation, whether due to intentional deception or error by officers or witnesses.
  • No promises. With some exceptions, defendants who plead guilty early on don’t know what the sentence will be. The point of plea bargaining—which often occurs after initial appearances or arraignments—is to receive benefit in exchange for a guilty or no-contest plea. Without having a lawyer who has negotiated with the prosecution, a defendant who pleads guilty can be subject to the whim of prosecutors and judges.
  • Uncertain consequences. Particularly without representation, people who’ve been accused of crime aren’t immediately aware of potential consequences of conviction. There are consequences to conviction that the court might not explain, such as loss of a job, endangerment of a professional license, or a harmful result in another legal proceeding. With a lawyer’s assistance, defendants who don’t have a reasonable chance at dismissal or acquittal may be able to plead to charges that don’t carry the same ramifications.

This requires the prosecutor to gather evidence against the defendant and provides the defense ample time to review the evidence, investigate the case, and determine whether the evidence proves that the defendant committed the criminal offense.

It is almost always a mistake to simply enter a guilty plea to the charges at arraignment. But how come?

The disadvantages to pleading guilty include the following:

  • You will have a permanent criminal record of conviction for that charge.
  • The judge or justice only has discretion to decide what sentence to impose.
  • You will never have the opportunity to see whether there was a viable defense to your charges or whether the District Attorney would have exercised prosecutorial discretion in your favor.

At the very least, an individual who is considering entering a guilty plea at arraignment should first enter a not guilty plea and discuss the matter with courtroom attorney for the day.

If a defendant pleads no contest, they acknowledge that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove they committed a crime but does not admit guilt. In other words, the defendant essentially admits committing the crime. When a defendant enters this plea at arraignment, the court proceeds the same way it would proceed if the individual pleaded guilty.

For more information on what to do at your arraignment, contact our experienced aggressive criminal defense lawyer at Berry Law today.

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