When a person is apprehended on suspicion of a crime, the whole arresting procedure can be overwhelming. Appearing in court, however, can be even more intimidating. For many people who are either going through this again or for the first time, not knowing what the court appearances are for or what to expect next can make the experience very confusing.
Because so much is on the line, however, it is important to understand the court process and how to respond. Many suspects do not realize what their rights are, and sometimes do not even understand the charges or what penalties may result from a conviction.
One of the most important constitutional rights individuals have is the right to an attorney. For Massachusetts residents, having effective legal counsel from the very beginning, or at least at the first court appearance, is essential.
The arraignment process
There are a number of steps that take place in the criminal trial process, but usually the suspect’s first courtroom appearance occurs at the arraignment hearing. If the individual was arrested and detained, it will usually come with a bail hearing. But for those who received a summons to appear, it will be their first time before a judge. In felony cases, a grand jury indictment may precede the arraignment.
The purpose of the arraignment is to bring formal charges against the defendant and to advise them of their rights. At the hearing, the judge will ask the defendant to enter a plea, which will set the stage for how the case will proceed. There are three possible pleas:
- Not guilty
- No contest
A no contest plea is a statement that they do not agree to the charges but accept the conviction. Pleading guilty or no contest will typically end the proceeding, while a not guilty plea will begin the trial process.
The arraignment clarifies the constitutional rights of the defendant, states the charges against them and allows the defendant to determine the direction of the process. Because it has these specific goals, a defendant who argues the case, speaks freely, or refuses to follow the arraignment procedure can put themselves at legal risk. Anything they say or evidence they present at the arraignment can be used against them at trial.
The Massachusetts legal system
Under the Massachusetts legal system, law enforcement will typically bring a suspect to the police station for booking. The suspect should be aware of their rights at this time, which include:
- The right to remain silent if questioned.
- The right to an attorney.
- The right to be considered for bail, except for murder.
If court is closed and the defendant cannot be arraigned after booking, the bail magistrate will determine whether to set cash bail or not and the conditions for bail, depending on the charges as well as the suspect’s record. Someone who is facing a misdemeanor charge that does not involve arrest may appear at a show cause hearing in District Court.
In Massachusetts, the arraignment process usually takes about three hours, and court costs are in the range of $250. It is best to speak with an attorney to discuss plea options before appearing in court.