In Florida, a defendant's first appearance generally marks the beginning of the courtroom process of a criminal case. At this initial appearance, the court will provide defendants with information on certain constitutional rights and the criminal charges pending against them. A defendant might also appear at a probable cause hearing. Timing is everything for these two hearings—with some exceptions, they should take place within a few days after an arrest for those in custody.
If police arrest and hold a defendant in custody (jail), they must bring the defendant before the court within 24 hours of the arrest. The first appearance takes place in front of a judicial officer (magistrate or judge). The defendant may appear either in person or by live video feed. The prosecutor and a public defender will also be present. The prompt timing required under this rule is meant to ensure defendants—who are presumed innocent—don't languish in jail on unsubstantiated charges.
The purpose of the first appearance is to:
Criminal charges. The judge will inform the defendant of the pending criminal charges and provide the defendant with a copy of the complaint.
Right to counsel. If the defendant would like counsel but can't afford to hire a lawyer, the judge must appoint an attorney to represent a defendant by the time of the first appearance or provide a public defender at the hearing. Defendants who plan to retain private counsel must be given a reasonable amount of time to send for, and consult with, their lawyers prior to the first appearance.
Bail and pretrial release. A judge will likely review the defendant's request for pretrial release. The judge may order release subject to conditions that reasonably protect the community and assure a defendant's future appearances at court. The judicial officer may set bail, allow posting of a bail bond, or grant release on a person's recognizance (a promise to appear). Along with bail, the judge often orders release conditions such as remaining law-abiding and having no contact with the victim. (Defendants accused of committing crimes subject to a life or death sentence are not guaranteed the right to bail in Florida.)
(Fla. R. Crim. Proc. 3.130, 3.131.)
For defendants who were arrested without a warrant and remain in jail, the court must generally hold a non-adversarial probable cause hearing within 48 hours of warrantless arrest (if the issue of probable cause was not addressed at the first appearance). Basically, at this hearing, the judge determines—usually by reading whatever sworn statement the arresting officer has submitted—whether sufficient grounds exist to believe the defendant committed the charged crime(s).
Often the judge finds probable cause, but if it doesn't, the defendant may be entitled to release. The judge can also address violations of prescribed time limits (the 24- and 48-hour rules) at this hearing and, when finding such violations, order a defendant's release or other remedies. In either case, release does not necessarily mean the case is dismissed. The prosecutor may seek to have the defendant rearrested or charges refiled at a later time. But the hearing prevents the authorities from detaining the defendant while they go on a fishing expedition for probable cause.
(Fla. R. Crim. Proc. 3.133.)
Generally, the next step will be the defendant's arraignment, where the judge will read the charges and ask the defendant to enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or if allowed, no contest (also called nolo contendere). Many defendants plead not guilty at this point, and the judge will schedule pretrial motions and set the case for trial. But the decision on what plea to enter isn't always that easy. A defendant should consult with their attorney regarding their plea options and the potential consequences.
(Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.160, 3.170.)
If you've been arrested or charged with a crime, contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Getting arrested and being held in jail are stressful events, and an experienced criminal defense lawyer can guide you through the complex criminal justice process, help you understand what to expect, protect your rights, and work to get you released.