You’ve been charged with a traffic violation, city ordinance violation, been arrested for a misdemeanor or felony and posted bond. What happens next?
ARRAIGNMENT Your first court appearance is called Arraignment. The judge or clerk will make general announcements and explain your basic legal rights. They read each persons name out loud, one at a time. When your name is called, you are expected to enter a plea. The three basic pleas are NOT GUILTY, GUILTY or NOLO-CONTENDERE (NOLO). However, there are many other types of pleas and legal options you may have at that time. You should have your attorney present at the arraignment of your case. Certain legal filings must be done at or before the arraignment.
If you are not sure what to plead, the judge will enter a not guilty plea for you and reset your case for trial. You can also request a reset to consult with an attorney.
NOT GUILTY If you plead not guilty, your case will be set for a trial. You must decide whether you want a judge or a jury trial. If you are charged with a city ordinance violation, you may only be entitled to a judge trial. (Also called a “bench trial”) If you ask for a jury trial, your case will be heard in the state or superior court of the county where the offense occurred.
GUILTY If you plead guilty at the arraignment, your case should be concluded that day and you will be sentenced. Your sentence may include fines and fees, probation or jail time, community service, alcohol and/or drug evaluations or other punishments depending on your charges. In many situations you can pay a fine and your case will be completed. However, if you can’t pay the fine on the day of court, you will be put on probation. Being on probation involves reporting on a regular basis to a probation officer, paying a monthly fee as well as a portion of your fine and showing proof you are complying with the court’s sentence.
NOLO If a plea of nolo is entered, you are not admitting or denying that you committed the crime you’re charged with, but you want to resolve your case without a trial or a plea of guilty. Nolo pleas are discretionary. The judge does not have to accept a nolo plea. If a nolo plea is rejected, you will have to change your plea to guilty, not guilty or another legally accepted plea.
In some situations, a nolo plea will prevent points from going on your Georgia driving record or keep your Georgia driver’s license from being suspended. If you have an out of state driver’s license, a nolo plea to an offense in the State of Georgia may be treated as a guilty plea in your home state and result in points or suspension of your privilege to drive. The nolo plea has been described as a “guilty plea dressed in a tuxedo” meaning that your fine and sentence is the same as a guilty plea. The offense still goes on your driving record but you can avoid points or suspension in certain scenarios. Please note that for individuals under 21 and drivers with prior offenses, nolo pleas may not avoid points on your record or save your license from going into suspension. Nolo pleas can typically be used once every five years per offense. You should consult with a qualified criminal or traffic defense attorney to determine if a nolo plea will benefit you.
PRE-TRIAL CONFERENCE In many courts you have the option of requesting a pretrial conference with the prosecutor. This gives you an opportunity to meet with the prosecutor and hear what they are offering as a punishment in your case. You may be able to resolve your case by a mutual agreement. Note however that EVERYTHING you say during a pretrial conference can be used against you at trial or during a plea so you need to be VERY CAREFUL what you say during a pretrial conference. It is STRONGLY advised that you have an attorney represent you at the pretrial conference. There may be a missing piece to the prosecutor’s case and you might provide them with the missing piece. Finally, it is up to the judge as to whether or not he or she will accept any agreement you worked out with the prosecutor.
If you don’t opt for a pretrial conference with the prosecutor and you enter your plea of guilty or nolo contendere on the day of the arraignment, it is up to the judge to determine your final sentence. In the majority of cases, if you hire an attorney, they can determine ahead of time what your likely sentence will be. That gives you ample time to prepare for court and present your case in the best light possible.
If you resolve your case at the arraignment, the court will give you a waiver of rights form to sign. The waiver of rights form lists your constitutional rights including your right to a jury trial. It also states that if you resolve your case at the arraignment, you will be giving up each and every right that you would have if you took your case to trial.
If you think you will save money by not hiring an attorney prior to the arraignment, nothing can be further from the truth. An experienced criminal defense attorney will research your case and determine what evidence is necessary to prove your case. They can identify defenses that may result in your charges being reduced or dismissed. They will shield you from admitting incriminating facts to the prosecutor ensuring you invoke your constitutional right to remain silent. They will prepare you for court. There are many other options available that your attorney may be able to negotiate on your behalf.
As you can see, there are many things an attorney can do to minimize the damage that can occur when you appear in court. Always consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney BEFORE you go to court.
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