In Virginia, the word “arraignment” can refer to two different types of criminal proceedings. Sometimes, an arraignment is the court appearance directly after you are arrested, where your charges are read. Most of the time, however, “arraignment” refers to the hearing at which you present a formal plea to the court.
To make things less confusing, we’ll refer to the first situation as a first appearance, and the second as a formal arraignment. This is the way that the term is used in the Virginia Code’s section on arraignment. Be aware, however, that this terminology varies by court.
First Appearance (or Initial Arraignment)
A first appearance is usually held the first court day after you are arrested. If you have been released from jail however, the court may decide to hold the first appearance days or even weeks later.
The main purpose of the first appearance is to make sure that you understand the crime you are being accused of. To this end, the judge will read you the charges against you. Most judges will also provide information on the way that the court works.
The judge may or may not set bail at this point. If the judge doesn’t set bail, you will need to file a bond motion through your lawyer. This is a simple process to determine whether or not you are eligible for bail.
Remember that you have a right to understand the charges against you. Don’t be afraid to ask for an interpreter if you need one. However, this is not the time to defend yourself against those charges.
The Right to an Attorney
After you have confirmed that you understand the charges against you, the judge will ask if you plan to hire an attorney. If you cannot afford one you will fill out a financial statement and submit it to the court. If you qualify, the judge will then assign you a court-appointed attorney.
You may first ask for a court-appointed attorney then later find a private attorney willing to take on your case. Virginia law permits you to replace your attorney in such a circumstance.
The Preliminary Hearing
If you are accused of a felony, the judge may decide to conduct a preliminary hearing with a grand jury. Depending on the court, you may or may not receive a date to appear for this hearing.
A preliminary hearing is not a trial, nor do you enter a plea. Instead, it is a procedure that determines if there is probable cause to continue the case against you. “Probable cause” means a judge is about 40% sure the evidence indicates your guilt.
A probable cause hearing is only to decide if the case can move forward, and does not actually decide innocence or guilt. It is helpful to remember that the hearing is tilted in favor of the prosecution and the defendant will usually lose.
If you are present at the preliminary hearing, it is usually best to not to testify. In Virginia, testimony given at a preliminary hearing is admissible at the actual trial. By testifying at this stage, you risk unintentionally incriminating yourself when there is no need to do so.
Note that a judge cannot revoke your bond following a preliminary hearing, unless you have done something to violate it.
After the first appearance (or preliminary hearing, in the case of felony charges) the court will schedule an arraignment.
On the day of your arraignment, a judge will explain the trial system in Virginia, and the rights that you have. They will also explain the possible punishments you could face for the charges against you. Then, the court will expect you and your lawyer to present a plea.
The court may decide to schedule your arraignment on the same day as your trial. However, the court will let you know ahead of time if that’s the case.
In Virginia, lawyers are permitted to come to agreements with the Commonwealth (prosecution) before a trial. This allows the Commonwealth to avoid the expense and time of a trial in exchange for a guilty plea. On your end, a plea bargain can result in a lower charge, a reduced sentence, smaller fine, or having some charges dismissed.
The ability to enter into a plea bargain is one of the biggest advantages to hiring a lawyer. The more quickly you do so, the longer your lawyer will have to negotiate the bargain, and the better deal he or she can get you.
Not Guilty Pleas
If you enter a plea of “not guilty,” one of two things will happen. For some misdemeanors, the judge might decide to hold a trial immediately. Your lawyer will present his case, and you may be called to give testimony. The judge will then issue a verdict.
Otherwise, the judge will give you a trial date. Keep in mind that this date can easily change.
Guilty Pleas and Pleas of No Contest
Instead, you may decide to plead guilty (including an Alford plea) or nolo contendre (“No Contest”). If you do so, a judge will issue a sentence immediately. Depending on the sentence, you will then be taken into custody or directed to the clerk’s office, where you will be able to pay any fines and court fees.
Judge Sentencing Vs. Jury Sentencing
If you plead not guilty on a felony charge, you will have the choice of a bench (judge) trial, or a jury trial. If you have a jury trial, the jury will not only determine your guilt, but will also determine your sentence. Although they have access to Virginia’s sentencing guidelines, juries do not have to follow them to the letter.
This is one of the biggest incentives to accept a plea bargain instead of risking a trial. Juries can be unpredictable, and often deliver far harsher sentences than a judge might impose.
It’s important to be as prepared as possible going into your arraignment. Knowing exactly what your charges are and how you will plea is essential. Fortunately, a good lawyer can help you prepare ahead of time, so you can go into your arraignment with confidence and certainty.