What to Expect at Your First Court Appearance

So you’ve been charged with a crime and summoned to court, what should you expect at your first court appearance? While customs and procedures vary throughout Minnesota state courts, the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure establish a framework for handling both misdemeanors and felony cases.

Misdemeanor Cases

For misdemeanor cases you first court appearance is called an arraignment. The purpose of the hearing is threefold:

  1. to make sure the defendant (that is, the person accused of the crime) knows what charges he or she is facing,
  2. to make sure the defendant is advised of his or her rights, and
  3. that a formal plea be entered.

In most court rooms an arraignment can be done administratively — meaning: a personal appearance in front of a judge is not necessary. In some misdemeanor cases, the prosecutor may request that the defendant post bail. If the prosecutor is demanding bail as a condition of pre-trial release, then the arraignment hearing will be held before a judge and a judge will make a determination on the State’s request for bail after hearing arguments from the prosecutor and defense counsel.

While it’s possible to resolve (plea) a misdemeanor charge at an arraignment hearing, it is most common to simply enter a not guilty plea and schedule a second hearing (a pre-trial conference) for further consideration of the evidence and possible defenses.

Felony Cases

For felony cases the first hearing is called a First Appearance. This frequently is held while the defendant is still in custody following their arrest. Similar to a misdemeanor arraignment, the purpose is to advise the defendant of their charges, advise them of their rights, and to set conditions of pre-trial release. Conditions of release may include the following:

  • Posting money bail
  • Restrictions on contacting victims / witnesses
  • Restrictions on travel (not to leave the state)
  • Restrictions on use of alcohol / non-prescribed substances
  • Requirement to submit to random drug and alcohol testing
  • Restrictions on possession of firearms and ammunition

It is exceptionally rare for felony cases to be resolved at the First Appearance. All felony First Appearance hearings are heard before a judge. In most cases, this involves a very brief hearing. If the State is requesting pre-trial release conditions, the prosecutor and defense counsel will make brief arguments and the judge will issue an order. If money bail is ordered, the defendant will be released upon the payment of bail or the issuance of a bond. All defendants have a right to a speedy trial. For felony cases this means that a second hearing — an omnibus hearing — must be held within 28 days of the First Appearance.

What to Say at Your First Court Appearance

If you’re represented by defense counsel, it is unlikely that you’ll need to say anything. Your lawyer will handle the entire hearing and will make all arguments on your behalf. If you’re not represented by counsel, you’ll need to answer the judge’s questions. The judge will need to confirm that you understand the charges and are aware of your rights. The judge may want to hear an argument from you as to why the State’s request for conditions of release should not be granted.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, don’t face them alone. The criminal justice system is complicated and the stakes are high. Contact Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer David Balmer for a free, confidential case evaluation.