After an individual has been arrested and the decision has been made to bring formal criminal charges, the Defendant will be scheduled for an initial court appearance, sometimes referred to as an "initial appearance" but more formally referred to as an "arraignment." In Rhode Island, this arraignment can occur in a few different ways depending on the nature of the charges and the Defendant's criminal history. Immediately after an arrest while in Police custody, the Police Department can choose to (1) release the Defendant with a "Summons to Appear" in Court for an arraignment or (2) call a Bail Commissioner and have the Defendant arraigned in the Police Station.
Summons To Appear in Court
When charged with less serious offenses, occasionally the Police will release the Defendant with Summons to Appear in Court. A Summons to Appear is a written notice scheduling the Defendant's first appearance before the District Court. The Notice typically includes the Defendant's Name, the Arresting Police Department, the charges brought by the Police Department, and the Date, Time, and Location of the Arraignment. If a Defendant is released from the Police Department with a Summons to Appear, he or she must appear in Court on the appropriate date and time or the Court will issue a bench warrant for their arrest.
Arraignment by a Bail Commissioner
At times when the District Court is not in session, a system has been put in place to ensure that Defendant's can be arraigned and released in appropriate circumstances. Individuals designated as "Bail Commissioners" are empowered to arraign individuals at the Police Station and set bail pending a formal arraignment in the District Court. At this Bail Commissioner arraignment, the Bail Commissioner will make a determination of whether to release the Defendant on personal recognizance (promise to appear and keep the peace), surety bail, or to hold the Defendant without bail. However, at this Bail Commissioner arraignment no plea can be taken, guilty or not guilty. The case will immediately be scheduled for a formal District Court arraignment and the will be given notice to appear in District Court. If the Defendant fails to appear at the formal District Court arraignment, the District Court will issue a bench warrant for the Defendant's arrest.
Formal District Court Arraignment
When the Defendant is either brought into Court by the arresting Police Department or appears for their scheduled arraignment, the arraignment process is straightforward. Before we discuss the arraignment process, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- Be sure you know where you are headed for your arraignment and give yourself sufficient time to get there as you CANNOT be late, a warrant will be issued for your arrest;
- Be sure you know exactly what time you are supposed to be in Court;
- Decide AHEAD of time whether you are going to plead GUILTY or NOT GUILTY, do not be swayed by the Judge or the prosecution.
District Court Arraignment on Misdemeanor Charges
At your formal District Court arraignment, you will be called before a Judge of the District Court. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor criminal offense you will be asked the following questions:
- Your name;
- Your date of birth;
- Your address.
These questions are asked to confirm (1) that you are who you are supposed to be and (2) that the Court has an accurate mailing address for you. After these initial questions you will be formally informed of the specific charges the the prosecution has brought against you and you will be asked how you plead, you may plead:
- Not Guilty;
- Nolo Contendre;
Guilty and nolo contendre (also commonly referred to simply as 'nolo') are admissions of guilty. If you plead guilty or nolo contendre at your District Court arraignment you will immediately be sentenced by the Judge after a recommendation is made by the prosecutor. You will NOT be allowed to present a defense, and you may not even be allowed to significantly speak on your own behalf.
We ALWAYS suggest that individuals plead NOT GUILTY at the time of their arraignment. In almost all of the case we handle (with a few specific examples), we plead not guilty at the District Court arraignment for a number of reasons. First, it keeps the case open so that we can properly investigate the prosecution's case, our defenses, and any mitigating factors that we should bring to the Court's attention. Second, it allows us to negotiate an appropriate resolution of the charges or, if the case calls for it, take the case to trial. After you enter your Not Guilty plea, your case will be scheduled for a further court date known as a "Pre-Trial Conference."
District Court Arraignment on Felony Charges
If you have been charged with a felony offense, your initial appearance before the District Court will be slightly different. You will NOT be permitted to enter a plea, as the District Court lacks jurisdiction to accept a plea on felony criminal offenses. This means that the Court will inform you of the charges that have been brought by the prosecution. Additionally, the Court will decide whether to release the Defendant on bail or hold him without bail. Eventually, the Defendant will be provided with a notice to appear in the Superior Court for a Superior Court arraignment.
Superior Court Arraignment on Felony Charges
When the time comes for a Defendant to appear in Superior Court, the initial appearance in the Superior Court is known as a Superior Court arraignment. At this appearance the Court will ask the Defendant:
- Your name;
- Your date of birth;
- Your address.
After these initial questions, the Defendant will be informed of the specific charges being brought forward by the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General and will be asked to enter an initial plea. This initial plea should almost ALWAYS be not guilty. The not guilty plea is enter for the same reasons above (to investigate and negotiate the case). After your Superior Court arraignment is complete, you will be given notice of a further court date called a "Pre-Trial Conference."