What is an Arraignment? Is a lawyer needed?

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, an arraignment is a procedure whereby the accused is brought before the court to plead to the criminal charge against him in the indictment or information. The charge is read to him and he is asked to plead “guilty” or “not guilty” or, where permitted, “nolo contendre.” State v McCotter, 288 N.C. 227, 217 S.E.2d 525, 529. Nolo contendre means “no contest” and is used in cases where for example, the defendant has no memory of the events.

The defendant is advised of the nature of the charge and his rights, and is allowed to claim or waive the rights. There are three types of arraignments: district court arraignment on a misdemeanor charge, district court arraignment on a felony charge, and circuit court arraignment on a felony charge.

All cases start in district court. A defendant can have any number of charges which will be either misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanor matters are handled in district court, however, felony charges must be bound over to circuit court.

At the arraignment, a defendant will be advised of the charge – that there is a misdemeanor and/or a felony charge that occurred. The magistrate or judge will read enough of the information to lay a foundation to inform the defendant of the facts of the events that make up the charge. The magistrate or judge will advise the defendant of his rights including but not limited to his right to an attorney and right to remain silent. He will ask the defendant how he pleads and whether he wants court appointed counsel and a preliminary hearing.

The procedure for a misdemeanor arraignment is codified at MCR 6.610(D). A defendant may ask the court to enter a plea of not guilty or to stand mute without a formal arraignment. The defendant files a written statement signed by himself and his attorney, if any. The statement must state the general nature of the charge, the maximum possible sentence, the rights of the defendant at the arraignment, and the plea to be entered.

If the charge is a felony, a defendant can have two arraignments on that charge. The first arraignment will occur in district court. After a preliminary hearing is either held or waived in district court, if the matter is bound over to circuit court, the first hearing in the circuit court will be another arraignment where again the felony charge is read or waived. The matter is bound over or sent to circuit court because the district court does not have jurisdiction to enter a final plea in felony cases.

An important step in the arraignment is the issue of bail. Accused persons are entitled to bail as provided in MCL 765.1 et seq. No person charged with treason or murder shall be allowed to bail if the proof of his guilt is evident. Where bail is allowed, the amount shall not be excessive. In fixing the amount of bail, the judge must consider the seriousness of the offense, the protection of the public, the previous criminal record and dangerousness of the person accused and the probability of the person accused of appearing at the trial.

If there is a question of whether the defendant will receive a bail in order to be released from jail, then this is a reason to have an attorney at the arraignment. The judge wants to hear that a defendant is not going to be a danger to the public and that he has ties to the community and obligations and responsibilities that will require him to return for the trial. The judge will set bail at a price that is tailored to get a defendant back in court and protect the public. If a defendant does not have money to pay the bail amount, he can ask the court for a personal recognizance bond (PR bond) and offer his driver license as security.

A very important aspect of bail involves defendants already on parole at the time of the offense. “Time served while being held for an offense committed while the defendant was on parole must be credited against the sentence on the former offense for which the defendant was paroled, and not against the sentence imposed for the current offense.” People v Brown, 186 Mich App 350 (1990), People v Watts, 186 Mich App 686, lv den 439 Mich 863 (1991). This means that if bail is set in such a case, and a defendant is incarcerated, the time he serves does not get credited toward the new charge, but rather for the former offense for which he was paroled. If that happens, a defendant can speak with their parole officer about credit against any parole violation. Another way to handle it is to motion the court to revoke the bond so that credit can be given for the new charge, knowing however, that if the bond is revoked, then the defendant will remain in jail. If there is a good chance that the defendant will be convicted at the trial, then the time served can be credited to the new sentence if the bond is revoked.

There are many factors to consider with regard to bail. However, if bail is not going to be an issue, then a defendant does not usually need to be represented by an attorney at the arraignment.

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