UPDATED AUGUST 6, 2018
One of the first things that most people who are accused of crimes in New Jersey ask us is, “what is going to happen at my first court date?” In most cases, the short answer is: Not all that much.
The criminal justice system in New Jersey functions almost nothing like what you would see on TV shows like Law & Order. The judge isn’t going to rule on anything, the prosecutor will not be involved yet, and there certainly will not be a team of news reporters waiting to interview you and your lawyer.
In almost all cases, the very first appearance in a criminal case is an arraignment in the municipal court that is located in the town or city where the defendant was arrested (in some cases the defendant may have been arrested in a different town and then extradited – or criminally transferred – to the municipality where the crime occurred). An arraignment is a very simple, quick procedure. The judge will always make sure that the court has the defendant’s correct address on file. The judge will then advise the defendant of the charges that were filed, and make sure that the defendant has a copy of the criminal complaint or warrant. Sometimes, the judge will read the full complaint, but this is just a formality that is not done in many cases. The judge will also ask the defendant if they have hired a lawyer or if they plan to apply for the public defender. If they want the public defender, then they will have to fill out an application and the judge will rule on whether they qualify. Even if a person qualifies for the public defender, they still may have to pay a filing fee of up to several hundred dollars. Some judges may actually ask if the defendant is pleading “guilty” or “not guilty”, but most of the time the judge will simply enter a plea of “not guilty” and then advise the defendant of the next court date. In most cases, that is all that happens on the first court appearance, and the whole process takes no more than a few minutes (although you may have to wait around for some time until it is your turn to be arraigned).
What is important to note is that this is NOT the time to tell the judge how you are innocent or how the police were wrong or made a mistake. You are innocent until the State has proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that will be decided later on in the process and not at the arraignment.
In some cases, the judge may also have to set bail. This is rare since most disorderly persons offenses (also known as misdemeanors) will not require any bail. And with many crime (also known as felony) cases only a Superior Court judge can set bail (more on that below). So the only time that bail would even be discussed is if the defendant is accused of a lower level “crime” and bail has not already been set and posted. And even in those cases, the municipal court judge may insist that a lawyer make a more formal bail application, to be heard on a later date.
If the defendant is only accused of a disorderly persons offense, then the municipal court will schedule the matter for a new date at that same municipal court – in some cases right then at the arraignment and in some cases it’s done later and sent to the defendant by mail. But if the defendant is accused of a “crime” (also known as a felony), then the case is beyond the jurisdiction of the municipal court. The judge will have to refer the case to that county’s Superior Court and transfer the file to the county prosecutor’s office. In such a case, the defendant’s next court appearance will be at Superior Court and not at the municipal court.
If you have appeared at an arraignment and you have not yet hired an attorney, you MUST use that short time between the arraignment and the next court appearance to hire an attorney. You should take the case seriously and protect your rights. If you or someone you know are accused of a crime, then please call us right away for a 100% free consultation and we can discuss how we will be able to help you.