The first time a defendant is in court will be at the arraignment. At arraignment, the defendant will enter a plea, have bail determined, and have the court decide if the defendant’s financial status qualifies him or her for the services of the Public Defender.
The police must bring the defendant into court to be arraigned within 72 hours of being arrested. (Of course, those 72 hours do not include the day of arrest, weekends or court holidays, so you could sit in jail much longer than 72 hours before being arraigned.)
At the arraignment, the defendant will have to tell the court how he or she pleads. Just like in My Cousin Vinny , the only thing the court will want to hear is one of three possible pleas. Once the plea is entered, the court will set bail or release the defendant “on his own recognizance (OR).”
If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the court will likely sentence the defendant right there for misdemeanors or, for felonies, send the case for a probation report and schedule the sentencing for 30 days later. In many jurisdictions, though, the court will not allow a defendant to plead guilty or no contest to a felony at arraignment. If that is the case, the court will enter a not guilty plea for the defendant so the case can enter the discovery phase.
It is vitally important to speak with an attorney prior to entering any plea (but especially important before pleading “guilty” or “no contest”). If, for some reason, you are unable to speak to an attorney prior to arraignment, you could plead “not guilty” and tell the court you need to retain an attorney. The problem with this approach is the moment you are arraigned, your speedy trial clock starts ticking. In other words, you will waste valuable case-prep time trying to find an attorney. Once you retain an attorney, the attorney now has less time to work on your case without waiving your Constitutional right to a speedy trial. If at all possible, the attorneys at the American Justice Center prefer not to waive time.
A better approach if you have not retained an attorney prior to arraignment would be to tell the court you are in the process of retaining an attorney and would like to postpone the arraignment for a few days so your attorney can be present. Make it clear to the court that you are not “waiving time” (i.e., that you are not giving up your Constitutional right to a speedy trial).
The best approach, of course, is to retain counsel as soon as you have been arrested (use your phone call to contact someone you trust to retain counsel for you or research criminal defense attorneys and have the name and number of the firm handy at home so your loved one does not have to do the research for you and possibly pick an attorney you would not want to work with). By having the attorney retained immediately, it makes it possible for the attorney to meet with you prior to arraignment in some cases and to be present during any interrogations. Remember: DO NOT speak to the police for any reason without consulting an attorney first! (And your attorney will probably tell you not to talk to police even after consulting with him.)