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After the Arrest: Navigating Initial Federal Court Appearances


After the Arrest: Navigating Initial Federal Court Appearances

Getting arrested and having to go to federal court can be really stressful and confusing. I want to walk you through what to expect at those first couple court appearances after an arrest, so you have a better idea of what’s going on. This stuff isn’t always intuitive, but knowledge is power, right?

First up is the initial appearance. This usually happens pretty soon after you get arrested – the rules say it has to be “without unnecessary delay”[1]. They’ll bring you before a magistrate judge, who is kind of like the gatekeeper judge in federal court.

At this first appearance, a few key things happen:

  • The charges against you get read out loud so you officially know why you were arrested.
  • You’ll be asked to enter a plea – not guilty, guilty, or no contest (we’ll talk more about pleas later). If you don’t say anything, they’ll just enter a not guilty plea for you.
  • The magistrate judge will decide whether or not to set bail. If you can’t afford a lawyer, the judge will appoint one to represent you for free.

Your second court appearance is called the arraignment. This is where you officially get charged by the grand jury. The U.S. Attorney is the prosecutor who represents the government and brings cases before the grand jury[3].

After the U.S. Attorney presents evidence, the grand jury decides if there’s enough evidence for you to be formally charged and have to stand trial. If they say yes, you get indicted. Then at your arraignment the charges get read and you enter a plea again[3].

The arraignment usually happens within 10 days if you’re held in custody, or within 20 days if you’re out on bail[4].

Here’s some key things about the arraignment:

Christine Twomey
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Guerline Menard
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  • The charges get read again and you enter a plea again.
  • If you pled not guilty, they’ll start talking about scheduling deadlines and the trial date.
  • If you plead guilty, they’ll set a sentencing date.
  • You can change your plea from the first appearance – it’s not set in stones.

Okay, let’s back up a sec and talk about the different pleas you can enter, because this stuff can get confusing:

  • Not guilty – You deny the charges and want to go to trial. The burden is on the prosecutor to prove your guilt.
  • Guilty – You admit the charges are true and there won’t be a trial.
  • No contest – You don’t admit guilt but agree to be sentenced as if you were guilty. There won’t be a trial.

Most people start off pleading not guilty at that first appearance. You can always change your plea to guilty or no contest later if you want to avoid trial. Lots of cases end in plea agreements. We’ll come back to that.

If you plead not guilty, the next steps are pretrial motions and discovery. This is the phase where your defense lawyer files motions to try to get evidence thrown out or get charges dismissed. They’ll also file requests to get evidence from the prosecutor, like witness statements, documents, etc[2]. This process can take months.

Okay, let’s take a breather. I know that’s a lot of information. The main takeaway is that there are two court appearances right after an arrest – the initial appearance and the arraignment. You’ll hear the charges, enter a plea, and the judge will deal with bail. From there, things either head to trial or plea negotiations.

I want to switch gears and talk about bail. This is the money you or someone else pays to the court so you can be released until your trial. The judge decides at that first appearance if you get let out on bail and how much it will be.

There are options besides just paying the full bail amount. You can also:

  • Pay 10% of the bail to a bondsman and they pay the rest. You don’t get that 10% back.
  • Put up property you own, like a house, as collateral instead of paying.
  • Get released without paying if the judge doesn’t find you a “flight risk.”

If you can’t afford bail, you’ll wait in jail until trial. Some key factors judges consider when setting bail are[5]:

  • Your prior record
  • If you have stable employment/ties to the community
  • If you’re facing serious charges with high sentences
  • If you have a history of not showing up for court before

I know it sucks, but not much you can do if the judge says you have to pay a high bail or stay in jail. An appeal is pretty much your only option at that point.

Alright, I want to switch topics again and talk about plea agreements. A ton of federal cases end up in some kind of plea deal instead of going to trial. The rules are kind of loose on what can be negotiated[2]. Here are some things that might come up:

  • Plead guilty to fewer or less serious charges
  • Agree to a sentencing recommendation, like 3 years probation
  • Cooperate with prosecutors on related cases
  • Pay restitution to victims

There’s a lot of back-and-forth negotiation. Your lawyer is key in getting you the best deal possible. You always have the right to say no to a plea offer and go to trial instead.

Okay, let’s recap the key points:

  • Initial appearance – hear charges, enter plea, bail set
  • Arraignment – hear charges, enter plea again
  • Plead not guilty – head towards trial, motions & discovery
  • Plead guilty – go right to sentencing
  • Bail – pay to get out of jail until trial
  • Plea agreements – negotiate charges and sentence

Whew, that ended up being a lot of information! I know it’s a lot to take in. Let me know if you have any other questions! I’m always happy to help walk through this confusing process. Stay strong!


[1] Initial Appearance Rules

[2] DOJ Overview of Criminal Justice Process

[3] US Courts Overview of Criminal Cases

[4] Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

[5] MA Rules on Bail Factors

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