This article will focus on the very first part of any Criminal Case, known as an Arraignment. Long before I ever became a Criminal Defense Lawyer, I had heard the term "Arraignment" in the news many times. Even though I had a general idea that the term had something to do with the beginning of a criminal Case, I didn't know exactly what an Arraignment was, much less what happened at one. For anyone involved with a Criminal Case, whether they are the person being charged with a crime (the Defendant) or that person's family or friends, the Arraignment is often their first-ever contact with the Criminal Process.
I'd like to narrow the focus of this article a bit. The vast majority of my experience is in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties. Pretty much everybody I represent would be considered "regular," or "average," in the sense that they generally have families and community ties and jobs, as opposed to being career criminals like Bank Robbers, Kidnappers and Serial Killers. It's that kind of ordinary citizen facing a Misdemeanor or light-to-medium severity Felony Criminal Charge that we'll have in mind as we review the Arraignment process. Because even a relatively casual treatment of this subject requires some depth, we'll divide this article into two parts. In this first part we'll examine how the Court advises a person of the Charge against them and what the potential Penalty is for such an offense, how the Court advises the person charged of their Constitutional Rights, and how a Plea is entered. In the second installment, we'll examine the setting of Bond and Bond Conditions, and the scheduling of a Defendant's next Court date and how that differs in Felony and Misdemeanor cases.
The process of Arraignment serves several purposes, and this is how the proceeding goes:
First, a Defendant is formally told of the exact Criminal Charge that has been made against them.
Second, the Defendant is likewise told the exact nature of the possible Penalty that they face.
Third, a Defendant is either told, or reads and must sign to indicate they read and understood, their Constitutional Rights when charged with a Crime.
Fourth, a Defendant is asked how he or she Pleads (Not Guilty, Stands Mute or Guilty).
Fifth, and perhaps most important of all, at least to the Defendant, is the setting of Bond and Bond Conditions.
Sixth, and finally, the Court informs the Defendant of the next Court date, or at least advises the Defendant that Notice regarding that next Court date will be sent to them.
We'll examine each of these things in turn, beginning with informing a Defendant of the exact charge or charges against them. When a person is alleged to have committed a crime, it means that they violated or "broke" some written law. In fact, everything that is illegal is illegal precisely because there is a law written somewhere that makes it illegal.
Before we examine the process in detail, it is important to note that in most Suburban Detroit Courts, a Lawyer for a Defendant in a Misdemeanor Case can "Waive" the Arraignment by filing papers with the Court so that the process described below is skipped. We'll get into that later in the article.
An example will help. Assume a person has been arrested for Possession of Marijuana in the City of Warren. They have spent the night in Jail, and are being brought over to the Court the next morning for Arraignment. Arraignments are conducted in the District Court where the Crime is alleged to have taken place, and can be handled by either a Judge or a Magistrate, who is kind of like a Judge (and is addressed as "Your Honor").
There are two possible Penalties for Possession of Marijuana that such a person can face. If they were arrested by the Warren Police Department and the charge against them is written up as a violation of a City Ordinance, then the person will be informed, at their Arraignment, that they are being charged with the Crime of Possession of Marijuana, which is against a City Ordinance, and the maximum possible Penalty they face is up to 93 days in the County Jail and a Fine or up to $500, (plus costs) and mandatory Driver's License Sanctions.
The State of Michigan also has a law prohibiting the Possession of Marijuana. Assume that instead of having been arrested by the Warren Police Department, the person was arrested by the Michigan State Police. If that was the case, the State Trooper will write up the charge as a violation of State Law instead of a local Warren Ordinance (which the Trooper is unlikely to know about, anyway). At the Arraignment, the Defendant will be informed that, under the State Law, which they are charged with violating, Possession of Marijuana is punishable by a maximum penalty of up to 1 year in the County Jail, a fine of up to $1000, (plus costs) and mandatory Driver's License Sanctions.
Thus, the first and second parts of the Arraignment, where a Defendant is advised of the exact nature and identity of the crime with which they are being charged, as well as the maximum (and any necessary minimum) possible penalty for such violation, has, in our example, been completed. As you can see, these two parts of the Arraignment process are essentially conducted simultaneously. Thus, advising a Person of the law they're being charged with violating and what the penalties are for that alleged violation are almost done in the same breath.
Next, a Defendant needs to be informed of his or her Constitutional Rights. Some Courts actually read these rights out loud to a person standing before it, while others give the person a form, called an "Advice of Rights," which spells out those rights. If a person is given the form, they are instructed to read it over, and then sign at the bottom to indicate that they have both read and understood their rights. The form is a carbonless duplicate, so the Court will keep the original, and the Defendant is sent home with a copy of the one he or she signed. If the Court reads the Constitutional Rights out loud to a Defendant, then they will be asked if they heard and understood all of their rights.
After advising a Defendant of the Charge or Charges against them, the maximum (and any necessary minimum) Penalties that can be imposed, and after making sure they understand their Constitutional Rights, the Court will next enter a Plea on behalf of the Defendant. This is where things can get a little tricky.
Before we go any farther, let's get rid of a concern that some people have about pleading "Not Guilty." In some cases, where a person is caught "Red Handed" and, at least from their point of view, there is no doubt about their guilt, they sometimes are hesitant to plead "Not Guilty." I could go on all day about why that concern is completely misplaced, but to shortcut all that and get to the point, if the Defendant is having some kind of ethical crisis over saying "Not Guilty," they can just "Stand Mute." This means that they don't say anything one way or the other about being guilty or not guilty, and the Court enters a Plea of Not Guilty for them. To be clear: "Standing Mute" means the Defendant doesn't say "Guilty" or "Not Guilty," but instead, by saying neither, the Court will enter a plea of "Not Guilty" for them.
As a general rule, a person should never plead guilty at an Arraignment, no matter how guilty they actually are or may appear to be. Cases can be worked out, deals made, or things just plain happen that can dramatically affect the outcome of a case. The person who originally made the complaint (i.e. the Victim, or the Arresting Officer) could get a great new job in Hawaii, or Alaska, and never be available to come back to Michigan to pursue the charge against the Defendant. This is, of course, an extreme example, but the point is that lots of things can be done to make what at first might look like a hopeless situation far better than ever thought, and if a person pleads guilty right out of the gate, they lose any opportunity for that to happen. Besides, even if nothing happens that can help them, they will certainly be no worse off by handling the matter later rather than sooner.
In Felony cases, some Judges or Magistrates skip right over asking a person how they plead by just entering a "Not Guilty" plea for them. This happens because a District Court, where Arraignments happen in all cases, both Felony and Misdemeanor, cannot accept a guilty plea in a Felony Case. Under the Law, only a County's Circuit Court can dispose of Felony Cases. District Courts do not have the Jurisdiction, or power, to do anything more than handle Felony Arraignments and Preliminary Examinations. Thus, even if a Defendant is dead-set on pleading guilty-as-charged in a Felony case, the District Court can only enter a "Not Guilty" plea on their behalf.
When I was first learning Criminal Procedure by handling cases, I was always struck by the irony or a Judge or Magistrate asking a person how they plead in a Felony case when all they can do is enter a "Stand Mute" or "Not Guilty" plea for them, anyway. It's sort of like a waitress asking a customer if they want their sandwich on white or wheat bread, when all the restaurant has is white.
In the next installment of this article, we'll examine the setting of Bond, Bond Conditions, and the scheduling of the next Court date.