After you are arrested for a DUI, you will have an arraignment. The arraignment is a court procedure during which you enter a plea and arrange a few other details, including scheduling the next proceeding in your case. This article describes the issues usually covered at an arraignment.
Here we assume that you are representing yourself—at least in these early stages of the proceedings. At this point, your main goal is to get the police report so you can evaluate your case before deciding what to do next If you decide to fight your case, you will likely need to hire a lawyer.
When you first appear and you don’t have an attorney with you, the judge will ask if you are represented and if not whether you plan to hire a lawyer or apply for public defender services (available for DUI charges in most states). If you are represented, and the attorney isn’t there, the arraignment will be continued to another date so your attorney can appear with you. If you aren’t represented at the time you appear, and you want a public defender, the judge will either appoint one on the spot (to get you through the arraignment) or have you apply for one and come back later. In some states you aren’t entitled to a public defender and in other states you can use the public defender but you may have to cough up some money if your income is above the eligibility level for free services. Unfortunately, it is the rare public defender’s office that lets you sign up in advance. Usually you’ll have to appear in court first.
You are also entitled at this phase to state that you want to represent yourself. The court will try to encourage you to get an attorney one way or the other, but if you stand firm the judge will approve your self-representation because you have a constitutional right to represent yourself. Of course there are always exceptions and some judges may continue your arraignment and tell you to reconsider your decision and encourage you to come back with an attorney. If so, don’t be buffaloed. The judge can discourage you from representing yourself but he or she has no right to prevent it and will ultimately give in.
When your name is called you will know where to go since you’ve been observing the cases that came before you. The bailiff will hand you a copy of the formal charges against you and, in some states, the police report. In other states you won’t get the police report until your arraignment is completed. While it will be helpful to skim the complaint so you know what charges you are facing, refrain from digging in to the police report if you also get it (which will be very tempting). You’ll have plenty of time for that later. There is nothing in the report that will influence how you should handle the arraignment.
You’ll first be asked how you plead. Your choices are guilty, nolo contendre (no contest), or not guilty. Unless you are far from home and don’t ever want to return to where you are, you should always plead not guilty at the arraignment. This is what the court expects so you needn’t feel like a fool for pleading not guilty even if your blood alcohol content was off the chart and your driving resembled that of a ten-year-old out for his or her first spin.
You will also be asked to waive time. This means you won’t hold the court to the strict time deadline for holding the trial. At this point you don’t really know what kind of a case you have, or long you would need to put together a defense, so it’s generally advisable to waive time at the arraignment. Later on, if you want to bring the case to trial, you usually can withdraw the time waiver you made earlier. Welcome to the strange world of the criminal court.
Usually you will already be released. If you have bailed out, the judge will likely continue the bail as originally set unless the prosecutor brings up some reason why it should be raised. For instance, if you are driving through Mississippi on your way to California where you live, and there is suspicion that you’ll not come back or arrange to appear through an attorney once you reach your home turf, the bail might be increased. In this situation, there would not likely be an order for you to remain in the state as a condition of the bail (because the type of DUI we are discussing here is a misdemeanor). Rather, they would count on the bail to secure your return regardless of where you go. If you were released at the jail without bail, the judge will likely approve continued release on those terms, unless the prosecutor objects.
Finally, you will then be given a date for your next appearance, the purpose of which will be to see whether your case can be disposed of by a plea bargain of some sort or whether you are really going to trial. Different states have different names for this appearance, but it always serves the same function—to find out whether you want to plead guilty and if not, to determine what happens next.
Excerpted and adapted from Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win, by David W. Brown (Nolo).