Criminal defendants are often extremely nervous about their initial arraignment in court. The client’s first experience in criminal court can be very frightening. Accordingly, a defense attorney should always explain the purpose and game plan for each hearing.
The purpose of an “arraignment” is to provide the criminal defendant notice of the charges against him. Our federal and state constitutions recognize that criminal defendants have a right to be fully informed of the charges against them so that they can competently prepare their defense to the government’s accusations. The arraignment is designed to provide a measure of fairness to criminal defendants that does not exist in many other countries. In some countries, criminal defendants sit in lonely jail cells for days, months and even years without any formal explanation of the charges and evidence against them.
A judge should technically read the criminal complaint at the time of arraignment to make sure that the defendant understands the nature of the charges. (Pen. Code Section 988) This rarely occurs, however, because nearly every criminal defendant is represented by a private or publicly appointed attorney who can quickly look over the charging document and explain the allegations to the client with relative easy. Accordingly, the formalities of the arraignment process are almost always waived to save court time. The defense attorney will enter a plea on behalf of the client and set dates for future litigation. (In rare cases, defendants are advised to plead guilty at the time of the initial arraignment.)
Timing of the Arraignment. A criminal defendant must be brought before a judge “without unnecessary delay.” This has been interpreted to mean within 48 hours after the time of arrest for in-custody detainees, excluding weekends and holidays. (Penal Code Section 825) If you post bail before your arraignment, the 48-hour rule no longer applies and your arraignment date will be postponed.
The District Attorney must file a criminal complaint before the time of arraignment. When a defendant is in-custody, police officers must often scramble to prepare their police reports in time to convince the District Attorney to file charges. If the arresting officer is unable to convince the District Attorney to file a complaint prior to the scheduled arraignment date, the case will be “rejected” for prosecution or referred back to the agency for a follow-up investigation. In both instances, the defendant will be discharged from custody.
In Ventura County, two critical court dates are set at the first arraignment. The judge and attorneys will schedule dates for an Early Disposition Conference (EDC) and a Preliminary Hearing. A defendant has a right to a speedy preliminary hearing within ten court days from the date of arraignment. The purpose of preliminary hearing is to safeguard defendants from completely groundless or unsupported charges by making prosecutors show enough evidence to convince a judge that there is “probable cause” to believe that the crime occurred. The Early Disposition conference will always precede the preliminary hearing. The court will usually offer the defendant a favorable plea bargain at the Early Disposition Conference to reduce the court’s caseload.
Private attorneys often continue the initial arraignment in Ventura County misdemeanor cases. The attorney will pick up the prosecutor’s discovery packet (police reports, etc.) at the arraignment and discuss it with the client. Ventura County judges typically offer their most lenient sentences at the arraignment stage. This is especially true in Driving Under the Influence cases. If the client chooses to enter a “not guilty” plea at the time of arraignment, the case will be set for jury trial.
I am a former supervising prosecutor in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office. If you or a loved one have been arrested in Ventura County, please don’t hesitate to give me a call so that I can begin working on your case as soon as possible. I may be reached at (805) 585-0048 or on the internet at billhaneylaw.com.