What you need to know about your arraignment

One of the first things that happens after a criminal charge is officially filed is an arraignment. How charges are officially filed depends on whether it is a misdemeanor or felony; if it's a felony the case is presented to a grand jury and they will return an indictment. The indictment is then assigned to a particular court. In McLennan County felony cases are assigned to one of two courts - either the 54th or the 19th. The case is also assigned a case number by the District Clerk.

The process is different in misdemeanors, since misdemeanor charges do not have to be presented to a grand jury. Instead, an information is filed by either the County attorney or the District Attorney. Once the information is filed the process is the same - a cause number is assigned, and the case is assigned to a specific court. In McLennan County the case will go to one of the two County Courts at Law.

The first thing done by the Court is to set an date for you to appear - this initial appearance is called an arraignment.

The arraignment does several things. One is to determine if  you have retained an attorney, and if so who will that be. That is important, because once you have an attorney the court will correspond with your attorney and not you.  If you don't have an attorney, the court will have to decide whether you should be provided with an appointed attorney.

The other purpose of an arraingment is to make sure you are the person named in the charging instrument, and to also make sure you understand what you are charged with. The Court will also tell you the punishment range that applies to the offense.

If you hire an attorney before the arraignment most courts allow you to waive it. You will be required to sign something saying you understand what you are charged with; that document also usually includes a plea of not guilty. Some people question whether they should enter a not guilty if they really are guilty. The answer is always yes. Even if you are guilty the State still has to prove it. You may also certain defenses. Also, a punishment has to be determined - which depends on a number of factors. If you simply plead guilty, there is nothing to prevent a court from giving you the maximun sentence.

Some people expect the judge to address the merits of the case in some way at an arraignment. However, the judge is not considering the evidence - he should not even know what the evidence is. Instead, he only looking at the formal charge - in other words, what you are charged. Decisions about guilt or innocence, and legal issues will be decided later.

After the arraignment - or after the waiver is received - the court will set a court date. Usually the case is set for either trial, or a plea. In some places it may be set for some type of announcement hearing, or status hearing. 

While the arraignment is important because it is the first part of the court process, it is usually  not significant in terms of the ultimate outcome. That will not be decided until your lawyer has completed their investigation, and you determine how you want to proceed.