Oftentimes arraignments are considered the official start of a criminal case. The arraignment might be the first time the defendant officially hears the charges against them. Several important things take place at the arraignment, including the judge asking how the defendant pleads to the charges.
At the arraignment, the judge will inform the defendant what charges are pending, as well as the maximum penalties involved, and ask how the defendant pleads. The defendant can plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Most defendants enter a plea of not guilty at this point for several reasons. (A defendant can usually change the plea further along in the process.)
Many reasons exist for a defendant to plead not guilty at the arraignment. At such an early stage of the prosecution, the defendant faces many unknowns.
Unrepresented. If the defendant doesn't have an attorney, pleading guilty before receiving legal advice can be risky. Without speaking to a lawyer, a defendant might be unaware of all the constitutional rights being waived by entering a guilty plea. And it's not just about knowing the rights themselves; it's also about fully understanding what each right means and the protections they offer. (More on rights below.)
Unknown evidence. The arraignment might be the first time the defendant finds out what charges are in the criminal complaint. This charging document usually contains only minimal details of the case. Through a process known as discovery, the defense will receive all the evidence the prosecutor has in their file, including any exculpatory evidence (evidence tending to show innocence). Without this information, the defendant doesn't know the strength of the state's case.
Unknown possible punishment. Although the judge informs the defendant of the potential maximum penalties, this information doesn't always provide a full picture. An experienced attorney can explain the range of penalties for the current charges, as well as how a conviction could affect future charging and sentencing decisions. For example, if the judge informs the defendant that the charge includes a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine, but the defendant has two similar convictions on his record, then suddenly the defendant could be looking at prison rather than jail time.
Unknown collateral consequences. In addition to unknown punishments, convictions often carry a myriad of possible collateral consequences. Certain convictions negatively affect a defendant's future ability to 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. A felony conviction can even change the ability of hunters and gun owners to do what they love.
When pleading guilty, the defendant waives, or gives up, several very significant constitutional rights. Importantly, the defendant gives up the right to a trial and all the rights that come with that trial, including:
Generally, it's in the defendant's best interests to consult with an attorney before waiving these rights.
Courts prefer that defendants are represented by counsel. If a defendant needs more time to hire a lawyer, asking for a continuance or extension is an appropriate request and likely to be granted. However, if the defendant has made multiple requests for continuances, the judge might find that the defendant is using the motion as a delay tactic and deny the request.
On rare occasions, a defendant might plead guilty or no contest at the arraignment. These circumstances usually involve the defendant's attorney already having met with the prosecutor and discussing a resolution. If the prosecutor made a very generous offer that would result in no jail time and allow the defendant to be released that day, the defendant might decide to enter the plea at the arraignment, in order to be finished with the case. However, most cases proceed past the arraignment.