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One of the very first steps in the criminal justice process is the arraignment. If it’s the first time you’ve been charged with a crime, you’re already overwhelmed, and an arraignment can seem intimidating. Although once you understand what it is and how it works, you’ll be better able to understand the role it plays in New Jersey’s criminal justice system.
If you have an arraignment hearing coming up, the best thing you can do is contact an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Contact Wimmer Criminal Defense Law at 215-712-1212 to schedule a free consultation and discuss your case and how we can help you.
Generally speaking, an arraignment is a formal court proceeding where the judge will formally read the charges filed against you. Your case will be heard along with several others – it can appear chaotic if you’ve never been to court before. There may be other proceedings handled on the same docket, such as motions and pre-sentencing matters. It may take several hours to get through the entire docket.
The arraignment is also a public hearing. Victims and their families can attend as can members of the general public. This can be intimidating and make your hearing feel like a public spectacle. However, be aware that you do not need to speak to them, and we strongly recommend that you do not.
After the judge reads your charges, he will advise you of your rights. Specifically, you will be advised of your right to be represented by counsel if you don’t already have one. If you can’t afford an attorney, you will be invited to apply for a public defender.
The prosecutor will also decide at that time whether to press forward with the charges or drop them. If they drop the charges, you are then free to go. If they press forward, then you will need to enter a plea – either guilty or not guilty. If you have already reached a plea agreement, it would be entered with the judge at this time. The judge will enter your plea in the court’s records. If you plead not guilty, the judge will then set various important dates pertaining to your case, specifically your trial date.
It’s almost more important to understand what an arraignment does not involve. An arraignment is not a trial – it is not a time to argue why you are innocent or why the charges are unfair. Because there may be so many cases on the docket, the judge may require that you only answer the questions put to you. Prior to the hearing, you may have the opportunity to discuss your case with the prosecution, but you will not have that opportunity while court is in session. Also, you should not engage with the accusers or the alleged victim, even if they are provoking you.
In New Jersey, misdemeanors (technically referred to as “disorderly persons offenses) are heard in municipal court. This means that you are not indicted by a grand jury prior to being charged. As a result, your arraignment is the first time your case will be heard in court. Upon entry of your plea, the judge will then set a trial date unless you plead guilty.
In New Jersey, felonies are referred to as “indictable offenses.” In order to be charged with an indictable offense, the prosecutor must first bring your case to a grand jury. The grand jury then decides whether there is enough evidence to support the charge or charges. If there is, then the grand jury issues an indictment and the prosecution proceeds with the charges.
Under New Jersey law, the arraignment must be held within 14 days of the indictment. The arraignment will be pretty much the same as it is disorderly persons charges, except that the judge will also order “discovery” with the related deadlines. Discovery refers to the various legal tools that can be used to discover what evidence the prosecution has against you. As a result, the dates related to discovery are very important.
You are not required by law to have a lawyer present at your arraignment. However, having a lawyer present can be quite helpful. They can ensure that the hearing goes smoothly and make sure you understand your rights and the charges against you. They can also make contact with the prosecution and begin discussing appropriate options.
The arraignment will proceed if you do not have an attorney – courts will not typically postpone the arraignment in order for you to hire counsel. That said, you will have time to hire one prior to trial. If you can’t afford one and are income-qualified, a public defender will be appointed to you. In either event, you want to speak with a lawyer as soon after your indictment as possible.
You are required to appear at your arraignment. If you don’t, the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest. Failing to appear at your arraignment is also a crime – so you will now be charged with failing to appear in addition to the charges you are already facing.
Although it’s largely administrative, an arraignment serves a critical purpose in our criminal justice system. Without representation, the prosecution will use the hearing to their advantage and your disadvantage. An experienced criminal defense attorney can make sure that your arraignment is fair and your rights are protected. Don’t delay – call Wimmer Criminal Defense Law at 215-712-1212 or visit us online to schedule your free consultation.