One of the first steps in a criminal prosecution is the arraignment. This is when the accused is brought before a judge or magistrate to determine whether he or she wishes to hire an attorney, have the court appoint an attorney, or waive the right to an attorney. It is in many respects the most important moment in any criminal case.
Many defendants choose to hire their own attorney, however, due to a lack of finances many cannot afford an attorney. The Supreme Court of Virginia allocates funds that provide indigent defendants with an attorney paid for by the State. At the arraignment, if an accused requests a court appointed attorney, the Judge will usually ask a series of questions to determine the average income of the accused. The Judge will then determine, based on statutory provisions, whether hiring an attorney would create an undue hardship for the accused. If a hardship would occur or already exists the court will appoint an attorney. The procedures are outlined in detail here – http://www.courts.state.va.us/courtadmin/aoc/djs/resources/manuals/ctapptatty/toc.pdf
Court appointed attorneys will vary depending on jurisdiction. Jurisdictions such as Richmond, Norfolk, or Fairfax have Public Defenders who work full time for the Commonwealth representing indigent defendants. There is a Public Defender’s Office with a full staff of employees. Smaller jurisdictions, such as James City County, Gloucester, or York County, rely on criminal defense attorneys in the area to accept court appointed cases. An attorney is usually given one week out of the year where they must appear for arraignments and should an accused require a court appointed attorney they are there to meet the accused and discuss their case with them. At times, due to scheduling of arraignments, the “duty attorney” (as the court appointed attorney is sometimes called), will not be present and the Judge will appoint the attorney and provide his or her information to the accused to get in touch with on their own.
Other than deciding whether to hire an attorney, request a court appointed attorney, or waive one’s right to an attorney, there are also two important things any accused should keep in mind.
1. If you are not sure what you want to do, ask for a continuance. If you are the accused and you wish to hire an attorney, but don’t currently have the funds, request a continuance to hire an attorney. Most judges grant two to three weeks for an accused to hire an attorney and notify the court. They will set a date for you to appear again, but this will give you time to find the right attorney. If this is your position, make use if it.
2. The second important thing to remember is this is not the time to argue your case! Many defendants show up for arraignment and begin revealing details to Judge about what happened. This should never happen. 99% of the time, this same Judge will hear the case later on and decide whether an accused is guilty or innocent. A wise defendant will make no statements about their case to the Judge at arraignment.
Arraignments are an important part of the criminal justice system. Make use of them to hire an attorney, or to have one appointed by the court. Finally, do not discuss or reveal any facts about your case to the Judge or court. If you have questions about an up-coming arraignment, please feel free to contact Brandon C. Waltrip, Esq. or one of the other attorneys at Collins | Waltrip, PC, by calling 757-645-9001.