How Does the Arraignment Process Work in Harris County?
Events become a blur for someone who has been arrested. It is not uncommon for people taken into custody by police to not know the actual criminal charges against them until the first appearance in court when a judge reads them out loud at the arraignment.
It is usually at the arraignment when a plea is entered on behalf of the accused, bail is set and dates selected for pretrial conferences, motions and other preliminary matters that must take place before the trial. Unfortunately for someone facing criminal charges, the arraignment can be as much of a blur as was the arrest process with most arraignments lasting no more than three minutes.
Having an understanding of the arraignment process can be helpful for a person accused of committing a crime or for the family of a loved one going through the process for the first time. The following information about the courts and the pretrial process in Harris County will answer some of the questions a person might have, but it cannot substitute for the personalized guidance and legal advice that only a Houston criminal defense attorney can offer.
Location of Arraignments in Harris County
The arraignment is usually the first opportunity that a person accused of committing a crime has to learn what the actual charges are that have been filed by prosecutors. Depending upon whether the charge is a felony or a misdemeanor, the arraignment could also be when a plea of guilty or not guilty is offered by the accused to the charges.
There are primarily two courts in Harris County having jurisdiction over criminal cases.
- The District Court located in the Criminal Justice Center at 1201 Franklin Street in Houston has jurisdiction over felony and misdemeanor cases. As a general rule, a felony case coming into the District Court will remain there from arraignment through sentencing.
- Misdemeanor cases that come into the District Courts are usually reassigned to the County Criminal Courts at Law that are also located in the Houston Criminal Justice Center. Arraignment and all other procedures in a misdemeanor case would be held in the County Criminal Court.
Arraignments in Houston
The judge presiding at an arraignment must first verify the identity of the person named in the indictment, if the case is a felony, or in the accusatory instrument in cases involving misdemeanors. Any inconsistencies must be corrected at that time.
A defendant who is not represented by an attorney at the arraignment will be advised of his or her right to counsel. An accused must be given an opportunity to obtain representation by an attorney. If a person is unable to afford an attorney, the arraignment judge will appoint an attorney to represent the person.
Unless an attorney representing a defendant waives it, the next step in the arraignment process is for the judge to read the charges to the defendant. At the conclusion of the reading, the defendant usually pleads not guilty. It is possible for defense counsel to confer with the prosecutor handling the case to negotiate a plea bargain at the arraignment with a plea of guilty or no contest.
Setting Bail at the Arraignment
The purpose of bail is to ensure the appearance of the defendant at all future court dates. Factors that judges in Houston take into consideration when deciding to release a defendant with or without bail include:
- The seriousness of the charges
- The length of time the defendant has resided in Harris County
- Defendant’s ties to the community such as a steady job and family
- Defendant’s prior criminal record and history of appearing in court
Probable Cause Hearing
A defendant’s first court appearance in Harris County might not include a plea to the charges if he or she was arrested for committing a crime that is a felony. Unless the defendant waives indictment at the arraignment, prosecutors must present the case to a grand jury for an indictment before the accused can be asked to enter a plea.
The first appearance in court of a person accused of committing a felony might include a probable cause hearing prior to indictment. At the hearing, prosecutors must present evidence to establish to the satisfaction of the judge that there are sufficient grounds to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed such crime. If they cannot do so, the judge must release the accused pending grand jury action.
A Houston Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
It is important for a Houston criminal defense attorney to be involved in a case as early in the process as possible to provide the best legal defense to an accused. The information an attorney may be able to obtain during the arraignment process and probable cause hearing could be invaluable in structuring a defense strategy.
If you have been accused of a crime in Harris or surrounding counties, get experienced representation immediately by contacting Rand Mintzer, Attorney at Law. Call (713) 862-8880 or email today to protect your future and your rights.
Photo Office of Keith Allison | Used under Creative Commons image attribution license 2.0