The arraignment is usually the first court appearance for a criminal defendant in Washington, D.C. and, as such, tends to cause particular anxiety for clients. Do I need a lawyer at the arraignment? What do I say? Should I plead guilty or not guilty?
Although the court itself will assure that you don’t do anything to compromise your position or your rights, you will need a lawyer to represent you at the arraignment. In most cases, defendants who are not able to afford a lawyer will have already been assigned a court-appointed lawyer. If you are not eligible for a court-appointed lawyer and you show up without legal representation, the court will allow a “duty attorney” to stand in for you at the arraignment but will then schedule another hearing for “ascertainment of counsel” (that is, another listing for you to return with legal counsel).
As for what you will need to say at the arraignment, the quick answer is that, other than your name, you don’t need to say anything at all. You just need to stand there while your lawyer does all the talking. And there really isn’t that much to say.
Your lawyer will plead “not guilty” on your behalf. He or she will waive a formal reading of the complaint and assert your constitutional rights, including the right to a speedy trial. The court will also consider the conditions of release pending trial. If, for example, you have already been released on your own personal recognizance, with reporting and other minor requirements, it is extremely likely that the judge will continue these conditions.
In most cases, the court will schedule a status hearing for your next court date, normally 6 to 10 weeks out. This will give your lawyer some time to contact the prosecutor about possible non-trial dispositions.
Your lawyer should also find out which prosecutor has been assigned to your case and receive the police report and other preliminary pieces of “discovery” from the prosecutor (that is, evidence, reports, and other forms of requested and prescribed information that is material to your case). Your lawyer will normally make a more formal request for discovery shortly after the arraignment. Depending on the nature of the case, your lawyer may also file any number of pre-trial motions (for example, a motion to suppress evidence based on a violation of your constitutional rights).
As for the question on pleading guilty or not guilty, in most cases the court will only allow you to plead “not guilty.” Your lawyer has not seen the police report yet and in most cases has not conducted an investigation of his or her own. The arraignment is not the proper place to enter a guilty plea.
The final question I often hear is whether a defendant can save some money by waiting until after the arraignment to hire a lawyer. While you do have a constitutional right to represent yourself in a criminal proceeding, the court will make it virtually impossible for you proceed without legal counsel at the arraignment. Moreover, since representation at the arraignment is included in the flat fee charged by most criminal defense lawyers, you might as well have the lawyer who will handle the later stages of the prosecution represent you during this initial step as well.
The final step is for the court clerk to issue you a subpoena for your next court date and to warn you of the consequences of a failure to appear.
As laid out above, the arraignment sounds pretty complicated. In truth, the whole process – from the calling out of your name until you find yourself heading for the door – will usually be concluded within a period of minutes.