DISTRICT COURT ARRAIGNMENT
In Michigan, all criminal matters begin in the District Court. The first hearing in a criminal case is called an arraignment, and occurs in the District Court in front of a magistrate or a judge. The purpose of the District Court arraignment is to do the following:
- Inform the defendant of the charges and the possible penalties;
- To advise the defendant of their rights;
- To have the defendant enter a plea (in misdemeanor cases); and
- To set a bond on the case.
In felony matters, a second arraignment occurs in the Circuit Court, after the judge in the District Court has made a determination that probable cause exists that a crime was committed and was committed by the defendant. Once that occurs, the case is transferred to the Circuit Court, and the Circuit Court judge again informs the defendant of the charges and possible penalties and has the defendant enter a plea.
Below are some common questions and answers regarding the arraignment. If you have specific questions regarding the arraignment in your case, you should always feel free to consult your Blanchard Law attorney.
What do the penalties mean?
At the arraignment, the District Court judge or magistrate will advise you of the maximum penalty for the crime for which you are charged. In most cases, the maximum penalty consists of a maximum period of incarceration (jail or prison time) and a maximum fine (monetary penalty).
In misdemeanor cases, the most common maximum jail penalties are either 93 days or 1 year. Unless you have a significant prior record, it is unlikely that, even if convicted, you will actually be sentenced to the maximum jail time.
In felony cases, the maximum penalty varies significantly by offense. The actual sentence you would serve, if convicted, changes based on a number of factors, including sentencing guidelines created by the state legislature that take into account your prior record and other factors surrounding the offense itself. The maximum penalty in a felony case may impact the judge or magistrate’s decision regarding the amount of bond. Generally, the higher the maximum penalty, the higher the bond will be set.
What plea should I enter at the arraignment?
At a District Court arraignment, for a misdemeanor, you should enter a plea of not guilty. You should enter a plea of not guilty, even if you are factually guilty. This will give you the opportunity to go to the next stage of the case, and with your attorney negotiate a more favorable resolution. Even if you are factually guilty, there may be legal issues that would lead to dismissal of the charges, there may be a deferral program available that would permit you avoid a criminal record, there may be a reduced charge available, or you may be able to enter into a favorable sentencing agreement that will limit your penalties. Of course, if you are not factually guilty, you’re going to want to plead not guilty so that you can obtain a dismissal or fight your case at a jury trial.
In felony cases, the judge is not permitted to question you regarding the alleged offense, or request that you enter a plea. A not guilty plea will be entered for you.
Won’t I be in trouble if I plead not guilty, if I am guilty?
No, you won’t be in trouble for pleading not guilty, even if you are factually guilty.
First, pleading not guilty allows you the opportunity to negotiate a more favorable resolution with the prosecutor. You won’t ever get that opportunity if you plead guilty, and the judge and prosecutor expect that most people will plead not guilty at the arraignment. Second, factual guilt in court cases doesn’t necessarily mean that you are guilty. Despite factual guilt in a criminal case, you may not be found guilty. There may be legal issues that entitle you to a dismissal, the prosecutor may not be able to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or there may be a reduced charge that more appropriately addresses your actions.
Do I need a lawyer at my arraignment?
While it is not required that you have a lawyer present at your arraignment, there can be significant benefits to hiring a lawyer prior to being arraigned.
First, hiring a lawyer can help you streamline the process of turning yourself in when a warrant has been issued, and may reduce or eliminate the need to spend time in the jail when you turn yourself in on the warrant.
Second, hiring a lawyer prior to the arraignment communicates to the judge or magistrate who is setting your bond that you are taking the case seriously. Cash bond is designed to ensure that you have an incentive to appear in court when you are directed to do so. If you’re willing the spend the money to hire a lawyer, the judge is going to assume that you are serious enough about your case that he or she doesn’t have to worry about you failing to appear for court hearings. This may result in a lower bond.
Third, having a lawyer at the arraignment can help in situations where you need to address the conditions of bond. For example, in some cases, the interim bond contains a no-contact order with the complainant. When the complainant is your spouse or significant other, this often means you are prohibited from having contact with your family and residing at your home, even if your family still wants to have contact with you. This order can be addressed by your lawyer at the arraignment. Also, the standard bond conditions prohibit you from leaving the state without the court’s permission. If you need to travel for work or for a planned family event, those issues can be addressed by your lawyer at the arraignment.
Fourth, the earlier you hire your lawyer in the process, the more quickly they can begin working on your case. Your lawyer can reach out to the prosecuting attorney, try to obtain police reports or other discovery materials, and can begin to conduct their own investigation of the case. The faster that happens, the better off you will be overall.
What are my rights?
At the arraignment, if you are not represented by a lawyer, the judge or magistrate will advise you of the following:
- That you have the right to remain silent;
- That anything you say orally or in writing can be used against you in court;
- That you have a right to have a lawyer present during any questioning consented to;
- That if you do not have the money to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint one for you.
If you are represented by a lawyer, the court rules don’t require the judge to advise you of your rights, as it is presumed that your lawyer will explain those rights to you. However, some judges will still go on to explain the rights above, even if you are represented at the arraignment.
Do I have to be present for my arraignment?
Most of the time you will be required to appear at court for the arraignment in person, but in certain misdemeanor cases, the arraignment can be waived in writing when the court permits it. This can be another benefit to hiring an attorney prior to the arraignment. In cases where the arraignment can be waived, your lawyer can help you avoid the additional court appearance. The district court arraignment, however, cannot be waived in any felony cases. Also, there are some courts that do not accept waivers, and always require your appearance in person.
How is the judge going to decide the amount of my bond?
There are a number of factors that the judge must consider in setting a bond on your case, including the following:
- Your prior criminal record, including juvenile offenses;
- Your record of appearance or nonappearance at court proceedings or flight to avoid prosecution;
- Your history of substance abuse or addiction;
- Your mental condition, including character and reputation for dangerousness;
- The seriousness of the offense charged, the presence or absence of threats, and the probability of conviction and likely sentence;
- Your employment status and history, and financial history insofar as it relates to your ability to post money bail;
- The availability of responsible members of the community who would vouch for or monitor you;
- Facts indicating your ties to the community, including family ties and relationships, and length of residence;
- Any other facts bearing on the risk of nonappearance or danger to the public.
What is a cash bond?
A cash bond is a bond where you post the entire amount of the bond in cash. For example, if your bond is set at $1,000, you can pay $1,000 to the court. That money will be returned to you in its entirety at the end of your case, provided that you appear for all of your court hearings, or will be applied toward the payment of your fines and costs. Each court is different with regard to the types of payment they accept.
What is a surety bond?
If the judge orders a surety bond, that means that you can use a bail bondsman to post your bond. In that case, for example, if your bond is set at $1,000, you hire a bail bondsman to act as a surety. The bondsman provides paperwork to the court that promises to pay the $1,000 if you don’t appear for court, very much like an insurance policy. Usually, this service costs somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% of the face value of the bond. However, the cost can vary depending on the amount of the bond and on the bondsman. The bondsman may also require you to put up collateral in addition to your cash payment. At the end of the case, the bondsman is released from their obligation, but you are not refunded any money, and no money applies toward your fines and costs.
What is a 10% bond?
If the judge orders a 10% bond, this allows you to bond out of jail by posting 10% of the face amount of the bond. For example, if your bond is set at $1,000, you can bond out of jail by paying the court $100. At the end of the case, that money will be returned to you or applied to your fines and costs, minus a 10% fee that the court keeps. So, in the example, you would receive a refund of $90, or have that amount applied toward your fines and costs.