Your arraignment or first appearance in court

Learn about what happens in the criminal court process at an arraignment. Get information on talking to your lawyer and the prosecutor, continuing a case, and more.

Table of Contents

What will happen at my arraignment?

Generally, a court officer will direct you to a microphone or place where the defendant stands. Walk to that spot and remain standing when your case is called. You can expect these 3 things to happen at an arraignment, but not necessarily in this order:  

  1. The charges will be read out loud and either the clerk will enter a not guilty plea on your behalf or the clerk may ask how you want to plead. You may plead in 3 different ways:
  • You may say that you're "Not guilty," which means that you deny the charges against you or you want a trial.
  • You may say that you're "Guilty," which means that you admit that the charges are true.
  • You may say "Nolo contendere" (no contest), which means that you're not going to plead guilty, but you are willing to be sentenced as you would be if you were found guilty.
  1. If you're charged with an offense for which you could receive jail time and you can't afford a lawyer, the judge will appoint a lawyer. That lawyer, sometimes called the "duty lawyer" for the day, is usually in the courthouse and likely in the courtroom. Either before or after the arraignment, you'll have an opportunity to talk briefly during a recess or outside the courtroom.
  2. If the case isn't disposed of, a date for a pre-trial conference will be set and you must return on that date. When you return, you should check into the probation office before going into the courtroom.  

Bail/dangerousness hearing

In some cases, another event may happen during the arraignment. There may be a bail hearing or a dangerousness hearing. If the information the judge has suggests that you may not return to court, a bail hearing will be held. Regardless of your financial status, the "duty lawyer" for the day will speak to you privately about what will happen at the bail hearing and represent you at that hearing if you want. If bail is set, you will be held until that amount is deposited in the clerk's office. The judge may place other conditions on your pre-trial release. You must follow the conditions in order to stay out of jail. If you don’t follow the conditions, then you may be held in jail. You have the right to appeal the amount of bail to a judge in the Superior Court, and the appeal can sometimes be heard the same day.

In a few instances, a dangerousness hearing may be held if the prosecutor informs the judge that you may pose a danger upon release. If the judge agrees, a hearing will be held to determine if you should be held in jail until your next court date. 

When can I first talk to my court-appointed lawyer?

It varies from court to court, but the first opportunity to talk to your court-appointed lawyer is usually immediately before or immediately after your arraignment. That lawyer is usually in the courthouse and is probably in the courtroom. You may talk briefly during a recess or outside the courtroom, and can arrange for a convenient time for a more in-depth conversation.

Can I dispose of my case at my arraignment?

Sometimes you can. You may be able to resolve your case at arraignment, especially with less serious charges, so that you don’t need to go back to court. Speaking with a lawyer before you do so may be important to determine whether there are any additional consequences that aren't directly part of the criminal case but that could affect you after you plead guilty.

The procedure for resolving a case at arraignment varies slightly at each court, but in general the process will include the following:

  • You may be asked directly during the arraignment if you want to take care of the matter today. If you agree and the matter is a very minor infraction, the judge or clerk may suggest a resolution to which you may agree or may suggest that you talk to a prosecutor. It's important for you to know that you don't have to agree — you have the right to proceed to a trial.
  • If you aren't asked if you would like to resolve the case today, but would like to do so, you should inquire when you're asked how you would like to plead. The judge may ask you to speak with the prosecutor to see if you can reach an agreement.
  • If you don't have a lawyer and want to represent yourself, you must waive your right to an attorney and sign a form indicating you have waived counsel before you can speak to a prosecutor. If at some later point you decide you want to hire a lawyer, you can withdraw your waiver. The waiver of counsel form must be filed and accepted by the judge, and then you may speak with a prosecutor. A prosecutor can’t speak directly to a criminal defendant until the defendant has signed and filed a Waiver of Counsel. After you have waived counsel, you may then talk to the prosecutor about resolving your case during a recess or when they step out of the courtroom.

What happens when I talk to the prosecutor during a break about resolving my case?

If, after waiving counsel, you and the prosecutor talk and agree on how the case should be handled, you and the prosecutor will fill out a form called Tender of Plea or Admission & Waiver of Rights that includes the agreed-upon disposition. If you and the prosecutor don't agree, you may each write your separate recommendation on the form. The form must be signed by both of you and given to the clerk in the courtroom.  

Please note that there may be consequences of pleading guilty that aren’t listed on this form but that may be important to you. For example, if you aren't a U.S.citizen, you could be deported, public housing benefits could be taken away, and/or you may no longer be eligible for student loans, to list a few possible consequences. Please consult an attorney to determine what specific consequences could apply to your case.

If you decide to proceed, once the form is turned in, your case will be called again. The judge will tell you whether they will accept your recommendation. If the judge in the District Court doesn't accept your recommendation, you may agree to any other disposition the judge proposes. Or, if the judge doesn't accept your recommendation at arraignment (or at a pre-trial conference), you have a right to withdraw your plea and have a trial on another date. Because the judge can't impose a sentence greater than the one you recommend, without your agreement, your plea at this point is "defendant capped." If you don't accept the judge’s alternate recommendation, you'll be given a date to come back for either a pre-trial conference or for trial. If the next court date is for trial, (not a pre-trial conference) you may not be able to offer a "defendant capped" plea on a trial date.  

For more information on guilty plea procedure, see the District /Municipal Courts Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 4(c) and Mass. Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 12(c).

Can my case be continued?

If your case is scheduled for a court date, but you need additional time to:

  • Discuss your case with your attorney
  • Bring enough money for costs and fines
  • Bring witnesses to the court on your behalf

You may ask for a continuance. In other words, you can ask the court to delay your court date to another day. A request should be made before the scheduled court date by contacting the clerk's office. A request made on the day of the event is less likely to be allowed, although a reasonable request for a continuance even on the trial date may be possible, but can't be guaranteed.

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