What's an arraignment?
An arraignment, simply put, is your first court date where a judge calls your name, tells you the charges that you're facing, and then asks you whether you plead guilty or not guilty. (Penal Code § 988.) Generally the lawyers, on behalf of their clients, will say their client is "not guilty" and the court then schedules future court dates. There will be a court date reserved for negotiation called a "pretrial conference." The second future court date, if scheduled, is a jury trial date in the event one doesn't resolve his or her case at the pretrial conference.
Who's your lawyer?
At an arraignment, when your case is called, the first thing the judge will determine is who's representing you—the public defender or a privately retained lawyer? The default is not to assume you're representing yourself.
If you want to represent yourself, you technically have to get the judge's permission first. Procedurally, when your case is called, you make what's called a "Faretta motion," which is simply orally request to represent yourself "pro per."
The judge will then determine whether you meet minimum qualifications to represent yourself and will require an acknowledgment from you on the record (known as a "waiver") that you understand the risks of representing yourself. For more information about this process, see my page, "Preparing Your Faretta Motion."
What does it mean to "waive time"?
Everyone has a 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial. If you're in custody and your case is a misdemeanor, the law says that you are entitled to have your jury trial within 30 days of your arraignment. If you're out of custody and your case is a misdemeanor, then you have a right to have your jury trial within 45 days of your arraignment. If you "waive time," that means you are giving up your right to have a trial within those time restraints.
Most defendants prefer more time to prepare their case, so they agree to a time waiver. But, depending on the circumstances, there can be strategic advantages to not waive time.
Does anyone simply plead guilty at their arraignment?
You can simply show up and plead guilty (or "no contest") at your arraignment to end the case and face your punishment. But that is not generally recommended. That's because you're not entitled to see the evidence against you until after your arraignment, which means if you pled guilty at your arraignment, you're doing so without having at least first seeing the evidence the prosecution actually has against you.
That's not to say resolving your case at an arraignment calendar is always out of the question. There's a strategic way to inquire about the benefit of accepting responsibility early, and in certain cases, it could be a risk worth taking.
For example, say you have a simple drug possession case or minor shoplifting case where you know they caught you red-handed and you confessed when questioned. You very well may qualify for "diversion" where you participate in classes and/or community service hours in order for the charges to be dismissed. If that's the case, coming in at arraignment and saying, "I'll do diversion if it's an option today" may be a smart, efficient way to resolve your case.
What happens if you miss your arraignment?
If you miss your arraignment, the court has the authority to issue a bench warrant. That means law enforcement can arrest you and throw you in jail.
For more information about what occurs at an arraignment or for a free consultation about your case in general, click here.