The first hearing in a misdemeanor criminal case is normally the “arraignment” hearing, where the judge will read the charges formally filed in the case and ask the defendant to enter plea of either guilty or not guilty. In Utah felony cases, the arraignment does not occur until after the case has been “bound over” for trial in the district court. The first felony court hearing is sometimes referred to simply as an “initial appearance” or “felony first hearing.”
- What is an arraignment hearing? In a misdemeanor criminal case, the arraignment hearing is the first court hearing held. The judge will read the formal charges and ask the defendant to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. The judge may also ask the defendant if an attorney has been hired, if a public defender is being requested, or if the defendant intends to represent himself.
- Should I plead guilty or not guilty at arraignment? The Constitution creates a presumption of innocence and requires that the prosecution prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt in any criminal case. Entering a plea of "guilty" at the arraignment erases the presumption of innocence and relieves the prosecution of the burden of proof. In almost every case, it will make sense to enter a plea of "not guilty" at the arraignment stage of the case, even if you plan to eventually resolve the case. Your attorney can help you decide what strategy is most likely to achieve the results you need.
- Do I have to appear in person at an arraignment? In most Utah courts, the judge will expect the defendant to appear in person at an arraignment hearing. If you ignore and skip a scheduled arraignment, the court will likely issue a warrant for your arrest. However, sometimes a court will accept a waiver of the formal arraignment or may allow a defendant to appear remotely or through counsel. Your attorney can help explain your options.
- Will a prosecutor make an offer at the arraignment? In justice court misdemeanors, prosecutor's are sometimes prepared to make a plea offer to resolve a case at the arraignment hearing. Often, however, the prosecutor has not had an opportunity to thoroughly review the case materials and is therefore not ready to make an offer. In some justice courts, prosecutors may not even be present at the arraignment. Regardless, it is best to consult with an experienced defense attorney before accepting any offer to resolve a criminal case.