What is an Arraignment?
What Happens If I Missed It?
I often get questions from my clients when they see a court date notice that says "Arraignment" on it. What is an Arraignment? It's actually a very simple legal procedure, but it is essential to every criminal case. When someone is indicted in Georgia ("indictment" is the filing of the formal legal paperwork charging you in Superior Court, not the initial paperwork from your arrest) they have a right to know what the charges are that were formally filed against them. They also need to plead guilty or not guilty at the very beginning of their case. In most counties in Georgia, this arraignment hearing is the very first time their case appears in a Superior Court Courtroom. This can be a particularly nerve-racking time for anyone, even those who have been charged with criminal activity previously.
Knowing what to expect can help relieve some anxiety, so I hope this post will help you understand what to expect.
The Reason For An Arraignment
An arraignment is usually your initial appearance in the Superior Court. The procedure dates back many, many years. In past centuries, most people could not read. So, it did not do them any good to be handed a document with the charges against them. Also, it has always been a goal of the American judicial system for the criminal process to be as transparent as possible. So for those two reasons, one of the first hearings a person charged with a crime would have was an arraignment, where the charges were read out loud so they could be sure they understood them, and for it to be done in open court, so anyone who wanted to hear them could also attend. And at that same time, the accused could enter an initial plea of guilty or not guilty. The case would then proceed depending on what that initial plea was.
Timing of the Arraignment
The timing of the arraignment can differ from court to court, but it is usually before you've had a calendar call (or status hearing) or anything else important happens in your case in the Superior Court. Speaking about Cobb specifically, we usually see arraignments happen within a month or two of the indictment. If you have a lawyer, they are closely following your case to see when it has been indicted, so they know that an arraignment is coming soon. If you don't have a lawyer, you may not have realized that your case was indicted and that arraignment notice in the mail is a bit of a surprise. It's especially surprising if you've been out on bond for months or years and then suddenly you're called into court.
Do I Have To Go To the Arraignment?
In short, yes. Unless your lawyer tells you that you don't have to go, you have to be there. An arraignment is an official court date and missing it can result in a bench warrant for failure to appear and you can be arrested. If you have a lawyer, they can often handle the arraignment in advance by filing a legal document that waives the arraignment and pleads you “not guilty” from the outset. With a waiver of arraignment properly filed in advance, you do not have to appear and will not get a bench warrant. I believe in filing waivers of arraignment in advance for all my clients because I know that coming to court can be inconvenient and often requires people to miss work.
What If I Didn't Get the Notice for Arraignment and I Missed it?
This happens a lot, especially to people who have been out on bond for a long time and their address has changed. A lawyer can help you, whether you've been arrested on a bench warrant or whether you found out you missed it but haven't been arrested. A lawyer can file the paperwork needed to resolve the missed arraignment and work with the judge to release you if you've been arrested.
Most people who have lawyers don't miss arraignment because their lawyer is monitoring their case, knows when it is on the calendar, and often waives it in advance. I also remind everyone to be sure to keep your address updated with the court. If they have your correct mailing address, it is much less likely that you will miss getting a court date notice in the mail. If you don't have a lawyer, call the clerk of the court where your case is pending and ask how to update your address. It's much smarter to take the time to do that than to possibly miss a court date and end up in jail.
What Happens In Court At The Arraignment?
There will likely be many people in the courtroom, all waiting to do their arraignments. Some others will be in custody and brought out into court for their arraignment. One by one, they are called on by the judge or prosecutor. Often the prosecutor will ask if you want the charges read out loud or whether you just want to receive a copy of the indictment that has your charges written on them. Most people don't ask to have the charges read aloud since it's time consuming and can sometimes be embarrassing. Most people just take a copy of the indictment instead. The only other step at the arraignment is to sign a piece of paper entering your initial plea, and then you are done. Often, you are given a notice at arraignment that gives you your next court date as well.
Why Do I Need A Lawyer For Arraignment?
Many people think that the arraignment is easy so no lawyer is necessary. This is an enormous mistake. It's not that the arraignment is difficult. It's what happens AFTER the arraignment that causes people to sometimes make fatal mistakes in the defense of their case. That is because a 10 DAY clock starts ticking the day after the arraignment. Georgia law says the demurrers and motions must be filed no later than ten days after arraignment. These demurrers and motions include demanding discovery (the prosecution's evidence against you), motions to suppress and other essential elements to most defenses. If you leave arraignment thinking you don't have to worry about getting a lawyer until sometime closer to your next court date, you are very, very wrong. If you wait, you may have given up your ability to present your defenses.
If you have a lawyer from the beginning of your case, you'll be in much better situation. The lawyer can monitor your case from the beginning and file those demurrers/motions immediately after your case is indicted, in addition to waiving your arraignment. That means you have started preparing your defense immediately, as opposed to waiting until it is too late and you've missed the deadline for motions and demurrers.
What if I Missed That Important Deadline?
If you have missed that important 10 day deadline for filing motions and demurrers, talk to a lawyer immediately. Lawyers can seek to file out of time motions, and may be able to get your case back on track. Never hesitate to call and talk about your options. Good lawyers understand that people make mistakes because criminal procedure is complicated. We are here to help you.