The first step in criminal proceedings is called the arraignment. This is when you are brought in front of the court to hear the charges against you and enter a plea. As a defendant who has been falsely charged with a crime, this is your first chance to state your innocence in front of a judge. There are different procedures that happen depending on whether you are in state court or federal court, but once you have completed this first step, the real work of defending your case begins.
That is when it becomes truly important to have a criminal defense lawyer familiar with Mississippi state and federal courts by your side to advocate on your behalf. But in the beginning stages after you have been arrested, you need to focus on properly handling one step at a time. Let’s look at what happens at an arraignment and how you and your lawyer can best prepare.
What Exactly Is an Arraignment?
An arraignment is commonly considered to be the official beginning of a criminal case. In most cases, this is going to be your first court appearance in front of a judge and prosecutor. The Sixth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution states that the accused shall “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation,” and an arraignment is the formal, legal way for you to be informed of the charges against you and respond with a plea. After your plea has been entered, the court will schedule you a court date.
More often than not, the defendant will plead “not guilty” to the charges. At that point, the task of defending the case begins for the defendant and their legal representation.
What Actions Happen at an Arraignment?
You can expect that the following actions will happen during the course of your arraignment:
- Reading of the Charges. Unless you and your lawyer decide to waive the reading, the judge will make sure you understand the charges and maximum possible penalties associated with those charges. At this time you, as the accused, will formally become “the defendant.”
- Obtaining an Attorney. The judge has an obligation to ask you if you have legal representation already, or if you need the assistance of a court-appointed attorney.
- Entering a Plea. After the charges have been fully explained, the judge will ask you to enter a plea. This is your opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty.
- Setting the Bail or Bond Amount. In some situations, the judge will also set a bail or bond amount. This number will depend on your current charges and criminal history. The more the judge deems you likely to show up to your court date, the greater chance that there will be no required bail amount and you will be released. If a bail amount is set, a person in Mississippi can serve time in jail until the trial date, pay the full amount of the bail, or hire a licensed bail bond agency to help them pay the bail amount.
What Are My Plea Options?
Generally speaking, you, as the defendant, can make one of three basic types of pleas: guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
- Guilty. Pleading guilty is admitting to the offense and removing the necessity for the prosecution to prove your guilt. A criminal defense attorney will not generally advise this plea unless circumstances render a guilty plea the best option—if, for example, a guilty plea is part of a “plea bargain” in which you can receive a lighter sentence or can plead to a lesser offense.
- Not Guilty. You are most likely to find a defendant pleading not guilty in criminal court. Pleading not guilty grants you the time to confer with your lawyer and examine the charges and evidence against you. There are a lot of advantages to pleading not guilty in terms of the leeway it gives you and your lawyer to learn more about the prosecutor’s side and consider options for proceeding.
- No Contest. A plea of no contest, or nolo contendere, is another option for accepting the charges but not admitting guilt. Your lawyer will advise you if it is concluded that this is the best route for you. Under certain circumstances, a plea of no contest may be beneficial in order to avoid a trial or to negotiate a reduced penalty.
When Will My Arraignment Happen?
Because the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial, you can expect that your arraignment will occur within a reasonable amount of time after your arrest. However, that amount of time can vary, subject to your circumstances and the situation of the judge and court. But if the court does not schedule your arraignment until months or years after your arrest, your attorney may be right to request that the case be dismissed based on an unreasonable delay. A judge will then review the circumstances of the delay and decide if it was, in fact, unreasonable.
The right to a speedy trial was designed to protect a person from being held in jail for long periods of time without knowing the charge against them. In today’s court system, your arraignment will usually happen within 48 to 72 hours after you’ve been arrested, if you were taken into custody. For out-of-custody defendants, the arraignment should generally occur within a period of a few weeks. If your arraignment doesn’t happen within this time frame, it may be prudent for you and your lawyer to discuss whether your right to a speedy trial was violated. Your attorney will be able to advise you if this is the case. On your part, you need to uphold your duty and appear for your arraignment when it is scheduled. If you fail to appear for an arraignment, it could result in a warrant for your immediate arrest.
How Can I Prepare for an Arraignment?
Without doubt, the best way you can prepare for your arraignment is to have a good conversation with your lawyer and make a firm decision on your plea in advance. There is no need for improvising—you should never be making any life-altering decisions standing in front of a judge in the courtroom.
It’s never a bad idea to familiarize yourself with how things will go once you reach the courthouse. Prepare by being alert, informed, and organized. Try to arrive at least 15 minutes early, observe all cell phone rules, and be ready to wait until it is your turn to appear before the judge. When you arrive, check in with the court officer or clerk and wait for the judge or clerk to call the docket. Respond only when your name is called, and make sure that you always stand when speaking to a judge.
“What should I wear?” may not be the first question on your mind when you’ve been charged with a crime. But I have represented enough clients to know that many people become worried and unsure about their attire when it comes down to the date of the arraignment. The rules for the Municipal Court of the City of Biloxi state that there should be no shorts, no bare shoulders, no low-cut tops, no cell phones, and no food, drinks, or gum in the courtroom. This set of rules and dress code is fairly standard for court appearances. A good rule of thumb is to dress as if you were going to a job interview.
A final piece of advice I give my clients: continue to keep up with the important things in your life as you wait for your arraignment. When you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s hard not to let it affect your work, your home life, your emotional health, and your ability to take care of your family. But as much as possible, try to continue with your employment and normal daily activities. Keep the lines of communication open with your lawyer, and, importantly, don’t talk to anyone about your case except your attorney.
How Do I Know I Have Good Legal Representation?
If you have been arrested, I don’t need to tell you how important it is to find a lawyer who can properly defend you when you’ve been improperly charged. You need someone who will let you know what you’re up against, who will let you know what can go wrong. Your lawyer should be your best advocate and your strongest supporter. Your attorney must know your rights inside and out, and they need to make sure that you know them too.
A good attorney isn’t going to tell you the sun is shining when it’s not. You deserve to know the upsides and the downsides of your case right from the beginning. A dedicated legal advocate will never surprise you with bad news down the road, but will give you the opportunity to completely prepare for any possible scenario well in advance. After decades of providing legal representation to those who have been accused of crimes, I understand how to give my clients the respect they deserve—involving them in the process, trusting their ability to handle things, and communicating with them every step of the way.
If you believe this is the kind of legal representation you need, I welcome you to reach out today. From experience working in the nation’s capital to setting up an office in downtown Biloxi right across from the courthouse, I have strong ties and a thorough understanding of all levels of the justice system. Contact my office to schedule a no-obligation discussion about how I can help you win your case.