Arraignment in D.C. Superior Court

by Jamison Koehler on June 22, 2010

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.

6 Comments on “Arraignment in D.C. Superior Court

  1. So you just covered arraignment, pre-trial motions and setting a date for trial. I’ve read a lot of cases where the defendant “waives his preliminary hearing.” What is that and why is it so commonly waived. Also, why do defendants often (as you said above) waive a formal reading of the complaint?

  2. Hello JW!

    Let me start with the easy one: waiving a formal reading of the complaint at arraignment. The court likes it because it allows the court to move through the docket much more quickly. And the defendant has a copy of the complaint. There is no benefit to having the sometimes sordid details of a complaint read out in open court.

    The decision to waive a preliminary hearing is much rarer, and the reasons for doing so are more complicated. Absent some compelling reason, it doesn’t make sense to waive the preliminary hearing. The hearing serves as a valuable discovery tool, allowing the defense to learn much about the prosecution’s case well before trial. Since the testimony is recorded, the hearing also allows the defendant to pin the prosecution witnesses down on key issues for possible impeachment at trial.

    As a result, I have rarely waived a preliminary hearing on behalf of a client. In the cases in which I have, it usually had something to do with a package plea bargain in which the defendant was combining a number of open cases into one deal. Some cases were further along in the process than others, and the waiver was done to facilitate the deal. The discovery and impeachment objectives are not as important if the defendant is not planning to contest the charges at trial. And the court will make sure that the waiver is knowing, intelligent and voluntary on the part of the defendant.

  3. Jamison,
    Thanks for the response. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about a certain kind of charge, and from what I get from the news stories, it goes something like this “Defendant So-and-so, represented by Public Defender Donkeylips, appeared in front of Judge Whatsherface and waived So-and-so’s preliminary hearing. Trial is set for two months from now.”
    Then, about a month later, this headline “So-and-so Pleas to Criminal Charges” and I was left wondering … what happened to the trial? Makes a lot more sense now. Thanks!

  4. Hi my name is [deleted], I live in DC and I have been summoned to court for a false accident report however, the report I received from the officer was a property report. I mad the claim on the street of the accident. I wantet to know what is your advice for me? Please let me know

    Thank You

  5. I also wanted to know – how long does this last? will the court make a decision quickly? will I go to jail or will it be dropped? I am only 24yrs old, never done anything legally wrong and I work as a contractor for the goverment and I really am not trying to messs up my job since its essentially only income in my house

  6. MB:

    Unfortunately, I have no idea as to the facts of your case. Nor can I provide specific legal advice over the Internet. Since you should be careful about posting details of your case on a public forum such as this one, I have also deleted your name and identifying information. Talk to your lawyer. He or she will lay out the post-arraignment process for you. Best wishes on your case.

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