Arraignment or First Appearance
This is a short post meant to answer a question that commonly pops up among people who are not familiar with the workings of Maine’s criminal law system: what is an arraignment? As I mentioned in my post about “summons or arrest,” an arraignment, under Maine law, is simply a criminal defendant’s initial appearance in court to answer to a criminal charge. An arraignment for a misdemeanor-level charge is distinguished from a “first appearance” for a felony-level charge, but in reality the only meaningful difference is that a defendant almost never pleads at a first appearance for a felony-level charge unless he or she has already been indicted. In other words, a first appearance for a misdemeanor is always an arraignment, but a first appearance for a felony is rarely an arraignment. Furthermore, because of tight scheduling windows and other issues, defendants in Maine are not usually allowed to plead guilty to an indictment if the arraignment is also the first appearance.
Given all of these super-technical distinctions, I tend to just refer casually to anyone’s first appearance as an “arraignment.” Regardless of whether the defendant is pleading “not guilty” to a misdemeanor complaint or acknowledging an understanding of the allegations in a felony complaint, the court proceeds in an almost identical fashion: it asks an almost identical set of questions, sets the next court date, asks about legal counsel (or appoints a lawyer), and addresses bail. If the defendant pleads “guilty” or “no contest” this is usually the last court date for the case. If the defendant pleads “not guilty” or “not criminally responsible,” the next court date is usually a dispositional (pretrial) conference.
In summary, don’t be intimidated by the vocabulary because arraignment is just what happens when you go in front of a judge for the first time to enter your plea.