When someone is arrested for a crime in they are taken to jail and eventually sent notice of a court date. This first hearing is known as the arraignment and is held for the purpose of allowing an individual to either plead no contest, guilty, or not guilty. At this point there would have been no disclosure of information by the State, such as a witness list, police reports, taped statements, video surveillance, scientific evidence and/or doctor’s reports. In fact, if somebody is appearing at their own arraignment it is due to the fact that they have not hired an attorney prior to this date. Consequently, the arraignment is the date that most people are appointed public defenders if they are otherwise eligible.
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The arraignment, however, is also the date that the prosecutor’s office uses high pressure techniques to get Defendants to plead their case at this first appearance. To get Defendants to plead their case at this first appearance relieves the State Attorney’s obligation to not only to prepare and send all discovery documents but also to begin working on the case and setting and attending future hearings. With such great incentive to lower their case loads, prosecutors are quick to make a “one-time offer” at arraignment. Failure of a Defendant to take this deal at that moment will result in said offer being withdrawn. The prosecutor will be clear that future offers will be much more stringent and the penalties enhanced.
Pleading a case at arraignment denies a Defendant the right to even investigate their case for possible defenses and is the quickest and most efficient way to lower the court docket and the state attorney’s caseload.
Pressure tactics such as these, unfortunately, must always be endured by the less fortunate in South Florida, as the only way to be appointed a public defender is to attend arraignment and succumb to such high pressure tactics. Defendants who can hire private attorneys, however, enjoy the luxury of their attorneys’ filing a Notice of Appearance and a Written Plea of Not Guilty on their behalf. This eliminates an accused having to attend an arraignment and yield to a one-time offer by the State. After all, how can the prosecutor threaten retaliation for a Defendant’s refusal to plea a case out at a hearing he is not even required to attend.
Equal protection arguments have been made in this regard with little success. Unfortunately at this point, the only way to avoid having a first appearance not knowing the State’s evidence against you, is to hire a private attorney and avoid the issue altogether.