How Should I Plead at Arraignment?

Defendants often plead "not guilty" at the start of a case.

By , Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Kelly Martin, Attorney Golden Gate University School of Law
Updated 4/18/2022

At some point in the early stages of criminal cases, whether at the first court appearance or a later arraignment, judges ask defendants how they choose to plead. It often makes sense for a defendant to plead not guilty at this point. A defendant can usually change a not-guilty plea at some later point in the proceedings, but the same generally isn't true of a guilty (or no-contest) plea.

Defendants routinely enter an initial plea of not guilty, then plead guilty or no contest after the defense lawyer has reached a deal with the prosecution.

Why Should You Plead Not Guilty at Arraignment?

Here are some reasons why defendants initially plead "not guilty."

  • No lawyer yet. Many defendants don't have anyone representing them to start. So, they haven't received any qualified legal advice about their case. For example, a defendant hasn't yet heard from a lawyer about potential defenses or errors by the police or prosecution, or the tendencies of different judges and prosecutors. They also don't know what kinds of motions they could file that might make the case harder to prove for the prosecutor, or even make it go away.
  • Unknown evidence. Oftentimes, defendants haven't received any discovery by the time they're asked to plead. The police report is usually the most important part of discovery early on. Without it, defendants may have little idea how strong or weak the evidence against them is. And even with the police report, they still might not know what their chances are without further discovery (like photographs, recordings, and more) and investigation (including consultation with experts). Police reports often contain limited information—and can also include wrong information, whether due to intentional deception or mistakes by officers or witnesses.
  • No promises of a deal. With some exceptions, defendants who plead guilty early on don't usually know what the sentence will be. The point of plea bargaining—which often occurs after initial appearances or arraignments—is to receive a reduced sentence or another benefit in exchange for a guilty or no-contest plea. Without having a lawyer who has negotiated with the prosecution, a defendant who pleads guilty can be subject to the whim of prosecutors and judges.
  • Uncertain consequences. Usually, without a lawyer, people aren't usually completely aware of the potential consequences of a conviction. Even if the court technically advises them that they will, for example, lose their drivers' licenses or have to register as sex offenders, they may not fully understand the effect of those consequences. Plus, there could be other fallout from a conviction that the court might not explain, such as losing a job or professional license, or a harmful result in another legal proceeding (for example, a presumption against child custody for someone convicted of domestic violence). With a lawyer's assistance, defendants who don't have a reasonable chance at dismissal or acquittal might be able to plead to charges that don't carry the same ramifications.

Should You Ever Plead Guilty?

While it's usually recommended that people plead not guilty until they have an attorney, most cases do end up resulting in a guilty (or no contest) plea down the line.

There are many reasons defendants and their attorneys ultimately decide that the best course of action is to plead guilty. For more information, see this article on the pros and cons of plea bargaining.

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