For the First 100 Days project, we have asked courtwatchers to watch and record observations at arraignments. We want to make sure community members understand what our volunteers are witnessing, so we have drafted this post giving an overview of arraignments.
In Massachusetts, anyone arrested must be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest or the next business day. They will arrive either from the police station in shackles or come in on their own two feet if they were able to post bail or were released on personal recognizance. Bail at the police station is set by a court clerk. People appearing at arraignments may also have been issued a summons.
What happens at an arraignment?
An arraignment is an accused person’s first appearance in front of a judge once a criminal allegation has been made and complaint has been issued. The purpose of this appearance is to formally charge someone with a crime, or divert or dismiss the case, appoint a lawyer if that is necessary, and decide conditions of release if the case proceeds as a criminal matter.
Our First 100 Days project is focused on observing arraignments in BMC Central, Roxbury, and Dorchester – all district court divisions of Boston Municipal Court in Suffolk County, MA. Read more about the project’s design and goals.
An arraignment is the opening of a criminal case. Initial charging and bail decisions control cases, and they're often handled by the least experienced prosecutors in an office. In the words of Scott Hechinger, Director of Policy & Senior Staff Attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, "arraignments are outcome determinative." Defense attorneys know this, but so do prosecutors.
Former Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Adam John Foss has also spoken about the significance of arraignments. In an interview on the New Thinking podcast with Matt Watkins of the Center for Court Innovation, he said: “[I]t’s the arraignment, it’s this first touch with the criminal justice system. Or maybe it's your seventeenth touch, but whatever it is . . . It’s so consequential—to everything; whether you’re charged with a misdemeanor or felony; whether you’re charged with something that has a collateral consequence, which down the road is going to make it difficult for you to be doing the thing that we want you to do. I could charge you with an armed robbery, or I could charge you with larceny from a person. Those sorts of decisions are made by very junior prosecutors who are just trying to survive in an office where their metric system is ‘Don’t screw up.’”
We are observing arraignments to see whether the charges DA Rollins pledged to decline are actually being dismissed or diverted, but we are also observing arraignments to see how our neighbors are treated, including how people are charged and decisions about bail.
Who's who in the courtroom?
The Clerk usually sits or stands in front of or to the side of the Judge. They call the courtroom to order and call each case by the docket number and the defendant’s name. The Clerk also reads the charges against the person being prosecuted. It’s the Clerk’s job to record and then read back every decision the Judge makes about each case, including the next court date.
Court Officers stand in the gallery or on the floor of the courtroom. They wear uniforms with badges. Court Officers monitor the behavior of the people in the courtroom and may warn people or ask them to leave for things like using a cell phone or wearing a hat. They are responsible for bringing people into the courtroom who are being held in detention and for giving defendants any paperwork from the court.
The Judge is announced by the Clerk before they enter the courtroom. They sit at the front of the courtroom on a raised bench, higher than everybody else in the room. At an arraignment, the Judge listens to arguments and makes a bail determination. The judge makes all legal decisions in the courtroom. This includes setting bail conditions including (but not limited to) money bail, GPS shackling, stay away orders, or drug testing and treatment. The judge also decides any motions asked for by either the assistant district attorney (“ADA”), the probation department, or the defense attorney. These might include motions to revoke bail if the defendant is out on bail for any other cases and motions to request a 58A hearing (otherwise known as a separate “dangerousness hearing”). The judge can also decide to accept or deny any other recommendation or resolution before the court including recommendations for dismissal and dismissal pending conditions like a fine, pretrial diversion, or the reduction of the offense to a civil infraction. Judges can set bail higher than, lower than, or equal to the prosecutor’s recommendation, release the individual on personal recognizance, or dismiss the case entirely. The person’s next appearance in court is set around the judge’s (and attorneys’) schedule.
The Probation Officer typically sits either to the side of or slightly behind the Judge and Clerk, often at a desk with a computer. They often face towards the gallery. Probation is responsible for managing the criminal court records of everyone accused of a crime. When a person is arraigned, probation will run their CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) and tell the judge if the person is currently on probation and if probation wants to move for a violation of the person’s probation. People who are being arraigned and not in custody are asked to check in with the probation department at the courthouse before their arraignment. Probation will collect their name and contact information and interview them to determine if they’re eligible for a court appointed attorney.
Assistant District Attorney (“ADA”)
There are usually between 1 and 3 Assistant District Attorneys (“ADAs”) sitting or standing at a table in the courtroom in front of the judge. ADAs are prosecutors, lawyers “for the Commonwealth.” ADAs represent the state’s interest in court and communicate directly with the police about charges. At arraignment, ADAs tell the court a story about the case based on the police report; decide what to tell the court from the person’s CORI to summarize the criminal history of the person being prosecuted; and make recommendations to the court about bail and argue motions. ADAs can also conference with defense attorneys about resolving cases at arraignment.
Defendant (person being accused of a crime)
The person appearing for arraignment may be sitting in the gallery or they may be in custody in a jail cell above or below the courtroom. When their name is called, the person being prosecuted will be asked to stand and come forward, or they will be brought into the courtroom in handcuffs into what’s referred to as the “dock,” which is a holding area usually behind Plexiglas and a locked door. The defendant is the person being formally charged with a crime and prosecuted.
The defense attorney is usually sitting or standing at the table nearest to the “dock.” There are normally several defense attorneys sitting behind the table. Defense attorneys represent people being accused of crimes. They are responsible for zealously advocating for and protecting the best interests of their clients. At arraignments, defense attorneys argue against prosecutors for lower or no bail and the least restrictive conditions of release. Defense attorneys can also argue motions at arraignment, like motions to dismiss or reduce the charges.
If probation determines that the person being prosecuted is “indigent” (can’t afford to pay a private attorney) then they will be assigned a public defender. There are two kinds of public defenders:
While people may have to wait in court for a long time for their name to be called, arraignments happen quickly and can be very hard to follow and hear. Usually people have only had a few moments to talk to their lawyer beforehand. Prosecutors have also had almost no time to review cases. People who have been in custody have not been able to shower, change clothes, communicate with family or employers, take care of pets, or take their medication.
If you’ve never observed an arraignment and would like to get a sense of the proceeding, you can read sample fake arraignment scripts here. You can also sign up for our next courtwatch training!
Court Watch MA is a community project with the goal of shifting the power dynamics in our courtrooms by exposing the decisions judges and prosecutors make about neighbors every day.