Tips for Arraignments: Surviving the First Court Appearance from DUI to Murder 1st

Let’s face it, when people generally look for an attorney, they are looking for an attorney to really shine when it comes to the trial or maybe at a motions hearing.  You don’t really hear people say that you should hire so-and-so because they are “really good at arraignments.”   Yet, I have found arraignments to be very important to clients for the following reasons: 1) Defendants sometimes appear for an arraignment before hiring or speaking with a criminal defense attorney,  2) The arraignment is often the client’s very first appearance in court, and 3) The arraignment can often be intimidating because it is often on a crowded docket day, when many people are watching.

Arraignment on DUI Charge: Although you might suspect the arraignment of a major felony to be the most complicated, arraignments on DUI charges are often the most complex.   While some arraignments can be waived by counsel, a DUI charge typically requires that the defendant appear in person to have conditions of release set.   Like any charge, an arraignment on a DUI charge involves a formal plea of “guilty” or “not guilty”.   Because a plea of “guilty” requires a lengthy plea form, such a plea would likely be set off to a future date.  The court at DUI arraignments will set certain conditions of release if they have not been already set.  The court will typically prohibit a defendant from consuming alcohol or drugs without a prescription.  Additionally a court will often forbid a DUI defendant from being present in any location where alcohol is served for consumption on the premises.   This largely restricts a person’s ability to go out to eat, because a lot of restaurants in the small towns in Stevens, Ferry or Okanogan County have class H liquor licenses.

Arraignment of Drug Cases: On misdemeanor drug cases, an arraignment can often be waived if a person has hired a defense lawyer and the lawyer files a notice of appearance.  In the courts of Ferry County, Stevens County, and Pend Orielle County, you see the growing practice of courts requiring pre-trial UA tests.  I believe that public funding has become available so that if a person is indigent, the county will pay for the testing.  The idea of pre-trial UA tests is obviously preferable to being held in jail prior to trial, but it is usually not a popular requirement.   The UA’s typically can detect marijuana use within a few weeks and alcohol use for about three days.   Typically, when a person signs up for the UA tests, they are assigned a specific color code.  The person is then ordered to call in by a specific time to see if their color has been chosen for that day.  If it has, the individual must appear for the test by a certain time later that same day.  This responsibility can be problematic because if a person lives in a remote location of  Okanogan County or Stevens County, for example, they may live an hour or more from the testing facility.  They would unexpectedly need a ride to court.  In certain cases, a person may test positive for marijuana due to use of the drug prior to arrest.  Additionally, a person may test positive for opiates due to use of prescription drugs of hydrocodone or oxycontin for example.  A copy of a valid current prescription must be kept at hand.

Arraignment on Violent Offenses:

Arraignment on a violent offense is procedurally much like arraignments on DUI or drug offenses.  For all felony charges, the court will ask the defendant to sign an advice of rights form acknowledging that they understand their constitutional rights.  During the arraignment it is important that no statements are made that could be self-incriminating.  It is the natural human reaction to explain one’s actions.  However, the arraignment is not the occasion for the court to determine the accuracy of the charges.   This idea can often be confusing for a defendant, because the prosecuting attorney will likely summarize or paraphrase the police reports in an attempt to secure a high bail.  And the defense attorney will often attempt to argue the weaknesses of the State’s case based on the limited information available.  However, this dialogue is much different than a defendant attempting to make a first person explanation so as to counter the allegation at hand.  Such statements by the defendant could be used in court at a subsequent jury trial, and often times the judge will interrupt the defendant if he or she attempts to explain the incident that forms the basis of the charge.  Unlike arraignments for DUI or many drug offenses, the court will often impose bail as a condition of release on such violent offenses as assault, robbery, or sex offenses.  Under the Washington State Constitution, the judge cannot hold a defendant without bail on any offense other than capitol offenses.

So if you are interested in exactly how a Superior Court arraignment will go, it usually goes pretty much like this:

Step 1:  The judge calls the case title “State v. Smith”, for example, and then recites the court case number, before inviting the defense attorney and his or client to approach counsel table.

Step 2: The judge will ask the defense attorney if he or she has gone over the advice of rights form with his or her client, and if the defense lawyer believes that the defendant understands the rights.  The prosecution often signs the form before the defense lawyer approaches the bench with the form.

Step 3:  The judge will ask the defense lawyer if the defendant “waives reading” of the “information” which is the court term for the criminal complaint or charging document.   The accused person has a right to have the charges read to them verbatim under the Constitution.

Step 4:  Once the defendant waives reading, the judge will ask the defendant to stand and will ask for example: “To the charge in count one, possession of marijuana, how do you plead? Guilty or not-guilty?”  The defendant responds.  The judge then asks: “To the charge in count two, possession of cocaine, how do you plead?”  Etc.  Sometimes, the only speaking a defendant will do at an arraignment is to say “yes” that he understands his rights, and to say “not guilty” once the charge is read.

Step 5:  The judge will then hear argument as to the conditions of release to be set.  The judge will hear from both lawyers, and then ask the defendant if he or she agrees to abide by those rules.

Step 6:  The judge will often sign a scheduling order providing for the court dates to come.  The judge will set a date for an “omnibus hearing”, a “status hearing” or a “pre-trial hearing” and a jury trial.  An omnibus hearing is the date for the prosecutor and the criminal defense attorney to declare what evidence they intend to use, what witnesses they intend to call, and what defense will be offered.  Sometimes a defendant will not need to appear for an omnibus hearing.  This is a good point to clarify at the arraignment.  A status hearing or a pretrial hearing is a date to confirm the readiness of the parties for trial, and this hearing can go by many different names.   Often times, a client will ask me what the purpose of a particular hearing is, and the short answer is often “that this is a court date to talk about future court dates.”  That might sound a little silly, but that is our court system for better or for worse.  The last thing I will say about the scheduling order is that a defendant should bring his or her calendar.  If they are unavailable for court due to a surgery or a final exam for example, they should make that known at arraignment, because rescheduling it later can be difficult for the defense lawyer to do.

There are not any video arraignments of Washington Courts that I could find, but below is an arraignment on a murder case off of youtube.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR….
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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