Arraignments In Massachusetts: A Primer

It’s a three-syllable word. And anyone who has ever been arrested, understandably finds it a scary word: Arraignment.

As a Norfolk County criminal defense lawyer, let me take you through the typical arraignment process, and hopefully make this a little more understandable. This post deals with the arraignment process in Massachusetts state courts, not in federal court.

An arraignment is the formal process by which a criminal defendant is charged with a crime (or crimes.) It is what officially commences the Commonwealth’s case against the defendant, and it is when he or she enters a formal plea on the record. In most cases, (99.9% of the time,) the defendant will plead “not guilty.” The arraignment, of course, takes place in court. A defendant can be arraigned in either District Court or Superior Court. Most arraignments take place in the District Court, but felony charges can be transferred over to the Superior Court through the process of indictment (separate post on indictments, later.) Generally, criminal offenses are classified as either a misdemeanor, or a felony. A misdemeanor offense is any crime that can be punished, following conviction, by a maximum sentence in a County House of Correction (county jail) of 2 1/2 years. Felony offenses are more serious, and they consist of all crimes which, following a conviction, can be punished by incarceration in state prison for a term of anywhere from 2 1/2 years to life. Superior Court arraignments are almost always reserve for indictments of felony offenses.

A county jail and a state prison are not the same, trust me: County jails usually house lower-level, typically non-violent offenders. State prisons house convicts that have been convicted of serious offenses and violent crimes. The two are very much “night and day.”

During an arraignment, a defendant and his or her attorney will come into contact for the first time with the prosecution. This process takes place on the first business day after the arrest, and it is usually a brief process. If you have been arrested, is wise to have a criminal defense lawyer present at your arraignment to represent you at that stage as, depending on the charge(s), the prosecution may request a “bail hearing,” in which the prosecutor can argue to the judge that you should either be held without bail, or that bail be set so high that you cannot afford to post it, leaving you in jail potentially until trial – which will likely be months later. A bail hearing is usually requested when the defendant has either defaulted on court appearances previously, or is otherwise considered a “flight risk.” (This means the Commonwealth is afraid you will “disappear” if released.) Bear in mind that bail hearings are rarely held for non-violent, relatively minor crimes, and are normally not held if you have no history of defaulting on prior court appearances. By comparison, if you are being charged with a violent or very serious offense, it is likely that the prosecutor will request a bail hearing in your case.

What also occurs at your criminal arraignment is the scheduling of your future pre-trial conferences, hearings, and deadlines for the mutual exchange of evidence that both the District Attorney’s office and your defense lawyer are required to provide each other. This is called the process of “Discovery.” A trial date will later be set, but your trial will not start until after discovery, motion hearings and jury selection have been completed. This process usually takes at least a few months.