Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. But the more important issue is whether you should accept an offer made at an arraignment hearing.
Purpose of the Arraignment Hearing
In Utah’s justice courts, the first scheduled hearing in a misdemeanor case is the arraignment. Two main purposes of the arraignment are: 1) giving formal notice of the charges that have been filed; and 2) entering an initial plea of guilty or not guilty.
Usually, we will already know what charges are being filed in the case, either from the citation that was issued or from the charging documents (known as an “information”) filed by the prosecutor with the court. The remaining issue is whether to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.
Guilty or Not Guilty?
Entering a guilty plea has four main effects: 1) it is an admission that you committed the crime; 2) it takes away your presumption of innocence; 3) it relieves the prosecution of the burden of proof; and 4) it advances the case to the sentencing phase. In short, pleading guilty is like doing the prosecution’s job for them.
Entering a plea of not guilty at the arraignment stage of a criminal case preserves your rights and gives you an opportunity to have your side of the story heard. A not guilty plea gives you a chance to obtain police reports, witness statements, videos, photographs, and other evidence relevant to your case. A not guilty plea gives you time to hire an attorney who can analyze the evidence, identify legal issues in the case, and work with you to develop a case strategy focused on achieving your goals for the case.
The constitutional rights guaranteed to individuals facing criminal charges are preserved and protected when you enter a plea of not guilty. A prosecutor who wants you to give up those important rights should be prepared to offer you something in exchange for your waiver of rights.
Will the prosecutor be present at the arraignment?
It seems like a question that should not need to be asked. In an adversarial system where defense and prosecution take their opposing positions with a neutral judge acting as fact finder and administering the law, it is natural to assume that both sides would be present at all court hearings. That assumption is often incorrect.
In some Utah justice courts, prosecutors do not regularly attend or participate in arraignment hearings. Prosecutors who do are often unfamiliar with important details of the case and no ready to make a meaningful offer to resolve the case.
Will I have enough information to decide?
At the arraignment stage, you probably will not yet have copies of police reports and other discovery materials. Entering a not guilty plea gives you time to hire a good defense attorney (if you have not done so already) and time to work with your attorney to gather information and formulate the best strategy for your circumstances.