Criminal Law

Initial Appearance in Court after an Arrest

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Once an accused individual, or defendant, is arrested for allegedly committing a crime, there are certain legal proceedings that'll occur. The defendant will be booked by the police. This means that he'll be fingerprinted, photographed and put in a holding cell. The defendant will remain in the cell until his initial appearance. An initial appearance is the first proceeding in front of a judge.

The police may also release a defendant on bail. This means that the defendant or a third party pays or pledges to pay a set amount of money to allow the defendant's temporary release. The defendant is obligated to return for the initial appearance.

Purpose of Initial Appearance

There are two important reasons for an initial appearance. The first reason is to inform the defendant of his legal rights. The defendant may not be aware of what exact rights he has after his arrest. The judge will inform him of these rights to help him in his decisions.

The second reason for an initial appearance is to prevent coercive interrogation by the police. The defendant is entitled to an initial appearance without unnecessary delay after he's arrested. If there's a long delay, the police may attempt to secure a confession using improper techniques. The defendant is entitled to be fully advised of his rights by the judge.

Some states may combine the initial appearance with the arraignment. An arraignment is a proceeding before the court where the charges are formally read to the defendant. He may also enter a plea to the charges at this proceeding. A plea is the defendant's answer to the charges.

Rights of Defendant at Initial Appearance

There are certain key rights that the defendant must be informed of at the initial appearance. Some rights may depend on whether the defendant is being charged with a felony or a misdemeanor. A felony is a crime that's punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year. A misdemeanor is a crime that's punishable by a fine or imprisonment less than one year.

States vary as to what rights the defendant must be told at the initial appearance. If the defendant is charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony, the judge must usually inform him of:

  • The right to a lawyer or to request a lawyer if he can't obtain one
  • The right not to speak
  • The right to hear the criminal charge against him
  • Any right to a preliminary hearing
  • The circumstances, if any, under which the defendant may secure pretrial release

    The judge will decide whether to allow the defendant to be released on bail. The defendant is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to consult with a lawyer. Most states will appoint an attorney if the defendant is too poor to obtain one. However, the defendant may not have a right to a court-appointed lawyer if he's only charged with a misdemeanor.

    Warrantless Arrest of Defendant

    Judges are extra careful at the initial appearance if the defendant was arrested without a warrant. A warrant is an official order from a judicial officer that authorizes the police to arrest a defendant. Judges want to prevent the unlawful detention of suspects by police.

    If there's no warrant, the judge must determine whether there's probable cause to justify the arrest of the defendant. Probable cause means that that there's a reasonable ground in the facts and circumstances for a belief that the defendant committed the crime. If there's no probable cause, the judge will have the defendant released from custody. This determination will be made at the initial appearance or a probable cause hearing soon after.

    Remedy for Unreasonable Delay

    If there's an unreasonable delay between the time the defendant is arrested until his initial appearance, the judge will normally suppress any confession or statements made during this delay. Courts will vary as to what's an unreasonable delay. There's no set time that constitutes a delay that's unacceptable. Each case is determined on its own facts and circumstances.

    Questions for Your Attorney

    • What are the advantages of having a lawyer at the initial appearance?
    • How long can the time period be between the arrest and the initial appearance? Will I be released from custody if the time is unreasonable?
    • Can I argue at the initial appearance that my warrantless arrest was illegal? Can I bring in witnesses to testify in favor of me?
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