What Happens at an Arraignment in Massachusetts?
An arraignment is the first step in the criminal process of being formally charged with a crime and the first time that a criminal defendant appears in court for that charge. You'll have an arraignment if:
- You were arrested. You are entitled to an arraignment after arrest at the earliest opportunity, usually the next business day;
- You were not arrested, but you received a "summons to arraignment" ordering you to appear in court at a certain time;
- You lost a clerk magistrate’s hearing (it happens!) and the clerk issued the criminal charges. Some clerks will offer you an arraignment immediately after the clerk's hearing. I would advise against this, as it will create an entry on your criminal record that we could have avoided.
The prospect of an arraignment can be stressful to think about, especially if you haven't been through it before. You may naturally have questions about what to expect. We get a lot of calls from people with an arraignment the next day (or even the same morning). If so, feel free to call or text anytime and we will try to help.
If it's not possible to hire an attorney and you're going it alone, relax! It's not anything you can't handle and will most likely be quick and relatively painless (once your case is called).
We have handled thousands of arraignments in both district court and superior court. In our years of practice, we have compiled some answers to frequently asked question below and hope it's helpful.
District Court Arraignment FAQ
The primary purpose of the arraignment is a formal reading of the charges against you and to officially start the criminal process. This is part of our 6th Amendment right to be informed of the charges against us and the proof of those charges.
Yes, as embarrassing as it is, the clerk will read the charges out loud (we always try to "waive" the reading of the charges to avoid this, but many judges will not allow it).
When you first get to court, check in with the probation office. This is required and you'll be sent back there if your case is called and you haven't yet. You'll also go to the bottom of the list and be there all day. For the same reason, get to the court early (doors will be open by 8:30 AM) because the line gets long.
Probation will take some basic information from you (no questions about the facts of your case) and, if you are looking for a public defender, some basic financial information.
You'll then be directed to the "arraignment session or the "first session", where you will wait for your case to be called.
When your case is called, walk to the front of the court, where you'll be told by a court officer where to stand (you will probably have seen it as you're waiting). The clerk (the person sitting in front of and below the judge) will read the charges against you and enter a Not Guilty plea on your behalf (if you're asked, always plead Not Guilty).
The judge will then ask you what you want to do with your case and you'll have 3 options:
- You want to hire a criminal defense attorney and need another date for him or her to appear;
- You want a public defender (if you qualify);
- You want to try and resolve the case on your own (without a lawyer) that day and would like speak to the district attorney.
If you get a new date, it will be for a "pre-trial conference" at least 6 weeks out.
Honestly, I respect the fact that you want to take responsibility for your actions, but this is serious and there are ways to do that without pleading guilty and without a permanent criminal record.
Many minor cases can be dismissed outright with the payment of court costs. You might be appropriate for a continuation without a finding (a period of probation followed by a dismissal). Charges can be amended from a felony to a misdemeanor. And so on...
This is honestly why I recommend having an attorney negotiate the plea, as opposed to doing it yourself.
We can usually do better than what the district attorney will offer you and, if we think we can do better with the judge, we can do what is called a "disagreed upon disposition" (we agree to enter into a plea, but can't agree with the DA about what the punishment should be, so the judge decides).
I would plan on three hours, but it may be more or less depending on the court and the list of cases to be called. The arraignment itself is usually just a few minutes, but the wait to get there can be lengthy.
Absolutely not. You have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and you will not be asked about the facts of your case (the exceptions being if you choose to speak to the DA without a lawyer and if you accept a plea). In fact, if you have a lawyer, you won't say anything at all unless you accept a plea at the arraignment.