Whether you are guilty or innocent, being charged with a crime is a scary experience. Getting ready for the first hearing, called arraignment, can be particularly nerve racking. Fortunately, you can ease your anxiety about your first court date by learning exactly what to expect.
The Purpose of Arraignment
Your first court date will begin with the judge telling you what charges have been filed against you. These charges will sometimes be the same as what you were initially ticketed or arrested for. In other cases, the charges will have changed. This is because the prosecutor in your case may disagree with the arresting officer over exactly which crimes they believe you committed.
After reading your charges, the judge will next ask how you wish to plea. You can plea "not guilty" to deny the charges and have the case set for a trial. Alternatively, you can enter a plea of "guilty" or "no contest" to resolve the case at arraignment. "Guilty" means that you are admitting the charges against you. "No contest" means that you are agreeing to be punished for the charges, but not explicitly admitting to them. In some courtrooms, the judge or prosecutor will offer you a plea deal before you enter a plea. In other courtrooms, the judge will wait until you have decided before choosing your sentence. Feel free to ask the judge for clarification about your potential punishment before deciding.
Finally, if you enter a "not guilty" plea, the judge will ask you whether you plan to hire a private lawyer. If you don't believe you can afford a private attorney, you can request for the judge to appoint a public defender to represent you. Public defenders are lawyers provided to defendants with low incomes for free or for a nominal fee.
The Length of the First Court Date
Your first hearing will likely be only one or two minutes long. Most courtrooms schedule many arraignments for the same day, so the judge will try to move through each case quickly. Unfortunately, because so many cases are scheduled at once, you may end up waiting in the courtroom for an hour or more before your case is called. Be prepared for court to take up to three or four hours.
What to Wear
You should take care to dress appropriately whenever you appear in court. Although many courtrooms will allow you in if you are underdressed, dressing properly will make a better impression on the judge. The appropriate attire for your first court date is business casual. Men and women can wear a button up shirt and slacks. Women can also wear a blouse and skirt or a professional-looking dress. Suits are also welcome, but not required. Some courthouses have unique attire requirements, so be sure to check your courthouse's website for additional rules.
When to Hire a Lawyer
It's never too soon to hire a criminal lawyer. Although many people wait until after arraignment to start looking for an attorney, it's better to begin your search as soon as you are first charged. A lawyer will guide and represent you throughout the criminal process. They can often even appear in court in your place so that you don't have to attend the hearing at all.
Your first court date is sure to be a nerve-racking experience. Now that you know what to expect though, it will hopefully be a little less scary. If you are still feeling overwhelmed, consider a criminal attorney to help guide you through the process. Remember that it is never too early in the criminal process for you to reach out to a lawyer.