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New Jersey Criminal Arraignment Process

In November 2009, a truck driver from New Jersey allegedly caused the death of three people. The truck driver hit two cars while driving a tractor-trailer on Route 9 in Woodford. The truck overturned along a sharp, downhill curve.

Everyday, people in what could be a simple traffic violation end up in prison for killing someone while acting grossly negligent when operating a vehicle. When someone dies in a motor vehicle accident, the case may be considered manslaughter or murder depending on the recklessness involved.

Once criminal charges are filed, the defendant makes a first court appearance in New Jersey. This stage is known as the arraignment. There is always a lot of commotion at arraignments. The case is heard at the same time as other cases on the arraignment calendar, and there may be calendars for other proceedings such as sentencing and pre-trial going on at the same time. The district attorney may arrive with a cart full of case files. The hearing commencement can be delayed with discussions in chambers between the judge and attorneys on other proceedings such as sentencing and pre-trial. The public defender may solicit cases from the audience not represented by attorneys. Usually to get a public defender, the defendant must complete a form indicating s/he’s indigent. The defense attorneys and the prosecutors may discuss things on the side to settle cases or exchange discovery.

The arraignment is a public hearing, where the victim’s family and other members of the public may attend. The hearing could take several hours depending on the amount of cases and the back and forth between parties and attorneys. At the arraignment, judge advises the defendant of rights and reviews bail. To speed things up, if the defendant has an attorney, s/he may decide to waive reading of the complaint. If the defendant is not in custody, and does not show up for the arraignment, the court may issue a bench warrant.

At the arraignment, the prosecution may decide not to go forth with the case. If the charges are not dropped, the defendant needs to plead. If a defendant pleads guilty, s/he is admitting to the facts of the crime and the fact that s/he committed that crime. If s/he plead not guilty, s/he asserts s/he did not commit the crime accused. A no contest plead indicates s/he is not admitting guilt, but does not dispute the charge. This is preferable to a guilty plead because guilty plead can be used against a defendant in later civil lawsuits, though the criminal consequences may be the same as a guilty plead. A defendant who plead not guilty at an arraignment may later change a plead before the plead cut off date.

After the plead, the judge sets the pre-trial or trial date. The defendant needs to be present at the trial date, but sometimes the judge lets the defendant’s attorney take care of the pre-trial without the defendant present.

If the defendant is in custody, the defendant has a right to bail. In New Jersey, all defendants have a right to bail set within 12 hours after a complaint is issued. If someone has ties to the community or no criminal history, s/he may be released on personal recognizance without having to provide for bail. Otherwise, the person has to put forth money to ensure s/he will show up at future criminal hearings.

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