Walking into a courthouse for your arraignment before a judge can be very intimidating, especially if you’re a newcomer to the criminal justice system. Here’s what to expect if you’ve been arrested or received a summons, and how best to handle your court appearance.

An arraignment is the formal beginning of a criminal proceeding. It usually takes place on the next business day after an arrest. If you were arrested over the weekend, expect to go to court the following Monday. If you received a summons, then the date of the arraignment will be stated on the summons.

Most criminal cases do not end at the arraignment. Instead, the courts schedule a series of dates for defendants and prosecutors to work through the case. This process involves the exchange of evidence, plea negotiations, and (sometimes) a trial.

Arrive Early at the Courthouse on Your Arraignment Date

On your arraignment date, you will be one of several people scheduled for court that day. Cases are called one at a time. Because the arraignment date is scheduled on a weekday soon after your arrest or summons, you may not have had time to contact an experienced attorney. While having an attorney by your side at the arraignment is helpful, it is not required. In most cases, your appearance before the judge will be brief.

When you arrive at the courthouse, look for signs that indicate which court room to go to. You can also visit the clerk’s office if you have any questions. Plan to arrive early, so you will have enough time to find out where to go. Don’t miss your case being called!

Expect to stay at least three hours for your arraignment. Your actual time before the judge may be brief but certain courts are much busier than others. If you must appear on a Monday or the first day after a holiday, there will be more cases scheduled. Remember to bring all the paperwork you have about your case to court.

What to Expect at Your Arraignment

A clerk will call your name, eventually. A court officer will direct you to where defendants are required to stand. The charges will be read aloud, and the clerk will enter a not guilty plea on your behalf.

Do not say anything about the facts of your case. You will not be asked to. Tell the judge that you plan to hire an attorney. Your case will then be assigned a pretrial conference date approximately two months away.

If your case involves very minor charges, such as driving with a suspended license or trespassing, you may be asked directly during the arraignment whether you want to try to resolve the matter that day. If you agree. then the judge or clerk may suggest a resolution or may ask you to speak to the prosecutor during a recess.

Typically, if a resolution is proposed at the arraignment, you will be asked to agree to pay a fine in exchange for the case being dismissed or decriminalized to a civil infraction. However, you don’t have to agree with what is proposed. You have the right to proceed to a trial at a later date. Even if you think you are certain to be found guilty, don’t plead guilty unless and until you’ve consulted a lawyer.

What if a Bail Hearing is Ordered?

In most criminal cases, you won’t go to jail while your case is pending. There is a presumption in favor of “personal recognizance” (that’s where a defendant is released from custody based on his or her promise to appear in court in the future). There are certain cases, however, when the prosecution and/or judge believe a bail hearing is necessary. If the judge has information that raises concerns that you may not return to court, a bail hearing will be held the same day as your arraignment.

Bail is a deposit that a defendant pays the court to guarantee his or her return to court while the case is pending. There are many factors a judge may consider when deciding whether or not to impose bail, such as the seriousness of the charges and the defendant’s ties to Massachusetts, work history, and criminal history. If you are at an arraignment without an attorney and a bail hearing is ordered, an attorney “on duty” will speak with you and represent you at the bail hearing. When your case is resolved (assuming you have shown up for all court appearances), whoever has posted your bail will get the money back.

Personal Recognizance Can Be Revoked

At the arraignment, regardless of whether or not bail is considered for your case, you might be ordered to abide by certain conditions while your case is pending. If there is an alleged victim, you might be ordered not to contact and not to approach the alleged victim. Similarly, if the alleged crime took place at a business, you might be ordered not to go there. If you violate any of these conditions or are accused of committing a new crime while your case is pending, then your personal recognizance can be revoked, and you can be incarcerated for up to 90 days while awaiting trial.

Whether your arraignment is complex or straightforward, you should request a copy of the police report from the prosecutor so that you can provide it to your attorney. Following the arraignment, you will have plenty of time to contact and ultimately hire legal representation. Here at Mountain Dearborn, we are available to answer any questions you have, before or after your initial arraignment.

Image: Unsplash+ in collaboration with Feyza Yildirim