An arraignment is usually the first court date in a criminal case. At your arraignment, the judge will tell you the charges and the maximum penalties for those charges if you're convicted. Once you know what you're charged with and what rights you have, the judge will ask you how you plead.
You can typically plead not guilty, guilty, or no contest at your arraignment. You shouldn't plead guilty or no contest without talking to a lawyer. The consequences for entering a guilty or no contest plea can be severe and may involve more than criminal penalties, like jail or probation. For example, a conviction may have immigration risks for noncitizens.
There are many reasons for defendants to plead not guilty at arraignment. At such an early stage of the prosecution, defendants face many unknowns, including:
No lawyer yet. If you don't have an attorney, pleading guilty before receiving legal advice can be risky. Without speaking to a lawyer, you may be unaware of the constitutional rights you're waiving by entering a guilty plea. You also may not understand the potential defenses you have to the charges.
Unknown evidence. At your arraignment, you'll typically get a copy of the criminal complaint, which outlines the charges. The complaint contains minimal information about the case. You'll want to get a copy of the police report and find out what exculpatory evidence (evidence tending to show innocence) the prosecutor has before you make important decisions about the case.
Unknown punishment. Although the judge will inform you of the potential maximum penalties at your arraignment, this information doesn't always provide a full picture. An experienced attorney can explain the range of penalties for the charges, as well as how a conviction could affect future charging and sentencing decisions. A lawyer can also ask the prosecutor to reduce or dismiss certain charges in exchange for a guilty plea or allow you to plead to certain charges for an agreed-upon sentence.
Unknown consequences. In addition to criminal penalties like fines and prison, convictions often carry other consequences. Certain convictions negatively affect a defendant's future ability to legally possess a firearm or obtain housing or employment. If the defendant is not a citizen of the United States, a plea could result in deportation, exclusion from admission to this country, or denial of naturalization under federal immigration laws.
When you plead guilty, you give up several significant constitutional rights, including:
It's a good idea to have a lawyer explain these rights to you and the pros and cons of waiving these rights before you plead guilty.
Courts prefer defendants to be represented by counsel. If you need more time to hire a lawyer, you can ask to continue or postpone the arraignment. If you can't afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint an attorney to represent you.
It almost never makes sense to plead guilty at an arraignment, and definitely not without talking to a lawyer first. A lawyer may advise you to plead guilty at an arraignment to avoid more serious charges or enhancements from being added down the road, but these circumstances are rare and would be difficult for an unrepresented defendant to spot.
Most criminal cases do eventually end with a guilty plea before trial. Learn more about the pros and cons of plea bargaining.