All criminal charges involve an arraignment. At the arraignment, the court explains the charges, the range of possible punishments, the presumption of innocence, the state’s burden of proof, the right to a jury trial and the right to counsel. At an arraignment on a misdemeanor charge, the court asks a representative of the state if there is a “risk of jail.” If there is a risk of jail, the court explains to the defendant the right to have counsel appointed, if he or she cannot afford counsel, and the process for applying for appointed counsel. If there is no risk of jail on a misdemeanor offense, a defendant who cannot afford an attorney is not entitled to an appointed attorney. For a felony charge, anyone who cannot afford counsel has the right to have counsel appointed. After the charges have been read and explained, the defendant is asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. People who don’t have any experience with the criminal justice system often wonder how they can legitimately enter a plea of not guilty if they in fact did what they are charged with doing. The answer is that a plea of not guilty is not a sworn declaration of actual innocence. Instead, it is a declaration that the defendant wishes to stand on the presumption of innocence and require the state to bring forward its proof.
It is almost always a mistake to simply enter a guilty plea to the charges at arraignment. Why? Because once you enter a guilty plea to a charge, you will have a record of conviction for that charge. The judge or justice only has discretion to decide what sentence to impose. Judges do not have the power to change the charge to something less serious or to offer a filing or a deferred disposition that might ultimately result in a dismissal. Under our constitutional framework, only the prosecutor has that discretion, as a representative of the executive branch of government. The judge or justice represents the judicial branch and that branch does not get to select what charges are brought against a person. If you plead guilty at arraignment, you will never have a chance to see whether there was a viable defense to your charges or whether the D.A. would have exercised prosecutorial discretion in your favor. At the very least, a person who is considering entering a guilty plea at arraignment should first enter a not guilty plea and discuss the matter with the courtroom attorney for the day. Anyone who is considering pleading his or her case to the D.A. in person should probably think again. Too many people think they can effectively discuss the case directly with the D.A., and only end up leaving the D.A. with the impression that they think they are being victimized by the system or are entitled to a break because of their station in life. This is counter-productive.
The optimal approach is to discuss the matter with an attorney before the arraignment. An attorney can inform a person of potential consequences of a guilty finding that the person otherwise might not know about. For someone who is not a U.S. citizen, a guilty plea might result in serious immigration consequences. Certain criminal convictions carry a lifetime ban on possession of firearms or ammunition, and still others result in driver’s license suspensions or revocations that are imposed after the fact by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. If there is a chance to avoid those consequences, the time to act is before a guilty plea is entered, not after a conviction is in place due to an uninformed entry of a guilty plea at arraigmnent.
In misdemeanor cases, when a person hires an attorney the attorney can enter an appearance and not guilty plea in writing and save the person from having to go to court for the arraignment. Sometimes an attorney can work out a favorable disposition of the charges before the arraignment and can accomplish that disposition on the arraignment date. But no attorney would ever go to an arraignment with a client, tell the client to enter a guilty plea to any and all charges and then simply plead for the court’s mercy in sentencing. A person should almost always plead not guilty in the first instance, receive discovery materials from the D.A., review and assess the state’s case and then approach the D.A., through counsel, to press weaknesses in the state’s case and seek a favorable resolution. Why through counsel? Because an attorney knows what to look for, to find weaknesses in the state’s case, and knows what to say and what not to say to a D.A. A private citizen does not. A private citizen is more likely to have just enough knowledge to be dangerous to him or herself.
I have been in court a number of times on arraignment day and have seen people enter guilty pleas to all charges against them, and I know that a D.A. could almost certainly have been persuaded to dismiss one or more of the charges. The judge knows it too, but once the person pleads guilty the only role the judge has left is to sentence the person. It’s actually a little depressing to see the people who go to arraignment and plead guilty to everything. Those who have been through the system a time or two almost never do that. The ones who do are often those who feel the worst about being in court, the ones who feel morally bound to admit their mistake and take their punishment. But what’s really happening is those nice, honest people are being abused by a system that, by its very nature, takes advantage of those who are naïve, those who don’t know the ropes. So before going to an arraignment, a defendant should talk to a lawyer. Anyone who goes to an arraignment without having spoken to an attorney should plead not guilty, get the discovery materials and then discuss the case with an attorney. And anyone who is absolutely determined to plead guilty at arraignment and get things over with should at least discuss that plan first with the lawyer of the day in the courtroom. The last thing anyone should do is just go to an arraignment, listen to the judge’s explanation of rights and then plead guilty to every charge they face.