Defendants appear in court before their trials and depending on the type of charges being brought against them, these appearances will lead to immediate sentencing, future trial dates, or possible release. Pre-trial court appearances are similar for defendants charged with misdemeanors and felonies with felonies pre-trial appearances having an additional step of a preliminary hearing.
Defendants charged with misdemeanors will make an initial appearance (arraignment) before a judge or magistrate where their charge is read to them and the penalties are explained. The defendant is then advised of their rights to trial (by jury if desired) and counsel (legal representation.) If the defendant is too poor to appoint a lawyer, a lawyer will be appointed to them by the judge or magistrate. At this point, the defendant will enter their plea. If a plea of not guilty is entered, a trial date is set and the judge or magistrate will set the amount of bail. If a guilty plea is entered, a date will be set for sentencing or the magistrate or judge can immediately impose probation, fines, or other sentences. Sometimes there is the option of a third type of plea: nolo contendere, or no contest. This plea is equivalent to a guilty plea, except that the defendant does not directly admit guilt.
Defendants charged with felonies will follow the same beginning steps as defendants charged with misdemeanors. They will have an arraignment where their charge will be read to them and they will be advised of their rights. However, defendant’s charged with felonies do NOT enter a plea. A preliminary hearing will be held to establish if a crime has been committed, there is sufficient evidence, and if there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense. This hearing is held as an additional safeguard due to the more serious nature of the charges. If the court finds there is no probable cause, the matter is dismissed and the defendant is released. If the court finds there is probable cause, the matter is transferred to trial court.
During these appearances it is important that the defendant behave with respect to the court, their counsel, and those around them. Any actions looked at unfavorably by the judge or magistrate may negatively affect the defendant’s sentencing, future trial, or release.
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