The primary purpose of an arraignment is to give the defendant written notice of the charged crime(s) and take the defendant’s plea. In addition, the judge may do any of the following.
Appoint counsel. The judge will appoint an attorney to represent an indigent defendant if jail time is a possible outcome. Defendants who are ineligible for court-appointed counsel and need additional time to hire an attorney can ask the judge to “continue” (delay) the arraignment for a week or so.
Hear a bail motion. Whether or not they had an earlier bail hearing, defendants can ask the arraignment judge to review their bail status (for example, to reduce the bail or convert bail to O.R. release). Similarly, if bail has been posted, the prosecutor may argue that newly discovered information justifies revoking or raising the amount to assure the defendant’s appearance or protect the public.
Set a date to hear pretrial motions. Defendants and their attorneys may raise legal issues at arraignment that the judge may wish to consider in the future, when both sides have had an opportunity to make and respond to motions setting forth their arguments. For example, the defendant may file a motion claiming that the case has been filed in the wrong court or that the activity in which the defendant was engaged doesn’t constitute a crime.
Set dates for upcoming hearings not involving motions. Depending on a state’s procedures and whether the charge involves a felony or a misdemeanor, the judge may schedule a number of upcoming hearings before other judges. For example, in one case an arraignment judge may schedule a preliminary hearing; in another, the judge may schedule a plea bargaining settlement discussion.
Negotiating Before Arraignment and Pleading Guilty at the Arraignment
Defendants who believe the case against them is very weak often ask whether it’s possible to negotiate a dismissal before the arraignment. Unfortunately, this possibility generally exists only for defendants who hire private attorneys prior to arraignment. Defendants who are represented by court-appointed counsel often do not even have counsel appointed until the time of arraignment. And a self-represented defendant should not risk additional legal difficulties by discussing the case with a prosecutor before arraignment (assuming that a prosecutor would agree to meet with the defendant in the first place).
The Private Counsel Advantage
Defendants who hire private counsel before arraignment have a chance to derail the case for several reasons.
A weak case exposed
First, in most parts of the country, intake prosecutors (not the police) are supposed to analyze cases to make sure that there is evidence of guilt and that prosecution is in the interests of justice. Frequently, however, the caseload is so heavy that reviews are cursory, and weak cases sometimes slip into the pipeline. If an attorney who is well known to the courtroom prosecutor can convince that prosecutor of the weaknesses in the case, the case may get dismissed.
Away from the limelight
Before arraignment, no one in the prosecutor’s office has invested a lot of time or money in the case. With less invested, it’s easier to let a weak case go.
A favor to overcrowded court dockets
Especially in urban areas, courtroom dockets (schedules) are crowded. By quickly disposing of weak cases, prosecutors can devote the little time they have to more serious cases. And disposing of iffy cases early on spares the courtroom prosecutor of the embarrasment of showing up in court with weak cases.
For all these reasons, if defense counsel can point out weaknesses that the intake prosecutor did not consider, or convince the prosecutor that further proceedings would not be in the interests of justice, a prearraignment meeting between the defendant’s attorney and the prosecutor may result in the case being derailed before arraignment.
Example: Redd Emption was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Rushing to make an airplane, Redd forgot that the gun he was supposed to leave at his house was still in his backpack. He was arrested when the airport metal detector revealed the gun. Redd has no prior arrests. The only reason that he had the gun in the first place is that a series of robberies had taken place in his apartment building, and his father had loaned him the gun for protection. Redd is out on bail and is scheduled for arraignment in a week. Thinking that his arrest is a misunderstanding, Redd is uncertain about whether to hire an attorney. However, a private attorney may be able to get the case dismissed before the arraignment. Redd’s attorney may be able to contact the arraignment prosecutor to seek a mutually agreeable outcome. Redd’s attorney can point out information that the intake prosecutor may not have been aware of—Redd didn’t own the gun; he had borrowed it for protection, and inadvertently had it in his backpack. Though Redd is technically guilty as charged, these factors may convince the prosecutor that trying Redd is not in the interests of justice. As a result, the prosecutor may agree to dismiss the case or offer Redd diversion (that is, agree to temporarily not file the charges and end the case permanently if Redd stays out of trouble for a period of time).
The Morales Law Firm would like to thank NOLO for sharing this information with us.