How to Represent Yourself at Arraignment on a Misdemeanor

By Suzanne Ferguson

Save yourself some money, and some confusion, by following these simple steps to representing yourself for your arraignment on a misdemeanor criminal charge.

How To Represent Yourself at Misdemeanor Arraignment

Show up on time. If the notice you got said show up at 8:30, be there at about 8:20....and then be prepared to wait.

Check in with the bailiff or the clerk, whoever is closest to you when you walk into the courtroom. Remember that unless you are given permission by the bailiff or the judge, you should not pass the "bar." The "bar" is the division, usually made of wood, that separates the audience seating from the front of the courtroom. You will see people going into this area and no matter how they are dressed, they are probably attorneys or their assistants. Unless you are given the okay by the bailiff or judge, you should not pass the "bar."

Listen for your name to be called by the judge and respond immediately when he calls your name by walking to the front of the courtroom. Pay attention to what you've learned, either from previous defendant's called or from the bailiff's instructions, as referenced in Step 2, as to where you should stand when the judge is talking to you.

Understand the charges. The judge will tell you what you are charged with and ask you if you understand what the charges. He's not asking you, at this point, if you are guilty of the charges. He just wants to know that you understand what you are charged with. If you don't understand what the charges are, make sure you ask.

Next, the judge is going to know how you want to proceed. You know better than anyone what happened on the date in question, except in circumstances where alcohol or other drugs are involved, so be prepared as to whether you think you'll want to plead guilty or not guilty.

Ask for an "indicated sentence." If you think you want to plead guilty, ask what the court's indicated sentence would be. At this point, the judge will give you his offer, or the offer received from the District Attorney depending on what county or state you're in.

Ask what the minimum and maximum sentences are. This will give you an idea how good the deal is that you're getting. If it's close to the minimum, or the minimum, this is probably the best deal you'll ever get and if you think you're EVER going to want to plead guilty, you should take this offer. If it seems closer to the maximum, then perhaps having an attorney with you would allow that person to negotiate a better deal for you. Either way, you'll have the perspective you need to make a decision.

Plead guilty or not guilty. If you want to take the court's offer, plead guilty and you'll get sentenced immediately. That means you know what you'll have to do for your sentence, whether it be a fine, community service, or jail time. If you want to plead not guilty, you should either ask to see if you qualify for a Public Defender (an attorney for people who can't afford to hire one) or ask for a continuance to bring a retained attorney to the next court date. It is a very bad idea, generally, to represent yourself after arraignment. An attorney, both a Public Defender or an attorney you pay for, can usually negotiate through the subsequent proceedings much better.

If you want to continue to represent yourself, you can tell the court that. At that point, you will have to sign what's called a Faretta waiver. This form basically explains to you that the court doesn't recommend you represent yourself and helps you understand that you are giving up your constitutional right to an attorney. At any point in the future, however, know that you can decide you would like an attorney and can again ask for a Public Defender or hire your own attorney.

About the Author

Suzanne Ferguson was born in rural West Virginia and moved to California with her family at the age of nine. She obtained her Juris Doctorate from University of San Diego and she is currently practicing criminal defense.