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What You Must Know as a Defendant
Charged with a Crime

by Ira Still, Esquire
South Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer

Understanding Court Procedure:
The Parties, Charges, Arraignment & Pleas


Article Summary:

You need to have a basic understanding of how your case begins, proceeds and ends inside the criminal court process.  You may feel confused, like an outsider on your own case.  You have so many questions and no place to turn for answers.  That is, not until now.  The author is a seasoned criminal defense lawyer who has written this article from his vast experience to guide you while you are trying to understand the court procedure regarding the parties, charges, arraignment and pleas.


  • The Parties

The defendant is the accused person against whom the criminal charges have been brought.  The Defense team is headed by the attorney and may include an investigator, paralegal and other support personnel who work at the lawyer's direction to develop the particular case strategy. 

The plaintiff is the other party to the court case.  This is the party who has lodged the charges against the defendant and commenced the criminal court case.  This party  appears on the pleadings as the State of ...  This party is represented by the prosecuting authority which may be referred to by many names such as the State, State Attorney, District Attorney or D.A. [in some states], Prosecutor, Prosecution or Prosecuting Attorney.  The State Legislature defines and writes the criminal laws that apply to that state.  When these laws are broken, it is the State that has been injured.  Therefore, it is the State that is the plaintiff in the case.  It is the State that prosecutes the defendant for breaking its law.

  •  The Charges

Most state cases are commenced by drafting and filing an Information, which is a written allegation that begins the case in court.   The information is a sworn complaint by the State Attorney who is charging the commission of a criminal offense against the laws of the State that has jurisdiction.  The Information declares that the State Attorney brings the charge.

An offense that may be punished by death [i.e. capital murder] must be prosecuted by Indictment.  The state attorney is required to present sufficient evidence to the grand jury that (1) a crime was committed; and (2) the defendant is the one who committed that crime.  If the grand jury believes there is sufficient evidence it will return an indictment, which is a plain and concise statement of the charge.  It is the grand jury that brings the charge with an indictment.  Where there is an Indictment there will not be an Information.  

In federal court, the plaintiff is called the "government" and this refers to the United States Government which is prosecuting the case.  It is the United States Legislature that enacts the federal criminal laws.  It is the United States Attorney General that is the prosecution.  In federal court, cases go to the grand jury and are begun with an Indictment.

  • Arraignment

Under most circumstances, the defendant's first time in court will be for the Arraignment.  An arraignment must be conducted in open court unless the Defense lawyer files a Written Plea of Not Guilty.  The advantage of filing a written plea is that this court appearance can be avoided saving the defendant time and money.  This pleading waives the formal reading of the Indictment or Information in open court.  If the Arraignment does take place formally in open court, then the judge or the clerk or the prosecutor will read the formal charges out loud.  The defendant will be required to enter his/her plea to these charges at that time.  A plea of guilty means the defendant does not want to proceed to trial.  A plea of not guilty means the defendant wants to proceed to trial.   When the defendant pleads not guilty the court will give the Defense a reasonable time to prepare for the jury trial.

If the defendant is not yet represented by counsel when the Arraignment is held, the court will advise the defendant of his/her constitutional right to counsel under the 6th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  The court will give the defendant an opportunity to obtain counsel or apply for court-appointed counsel if they qualify as indigent. 

The 6th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States contains the trial rights such as a speedy and public trial; an impartial jury; to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted by the witnesses against them; to be able to subpoena their own witnesses and to have the effective assistance of counsel at all crucial stages of the prosecution.  When the defendant pleads not guilty, all of the trial rights immediately attach and remain until the trial jury reaches its verdict.

  • Entering the Plea

A defendant may plead not guilty, guilty, or where the court permits nolo contendere.  The third option arises out of common law in situations where a plea to a criminal charge might have consequences in a civil suit based upon the same wrongful act.  E.g. if the state charges the defendant with discharging a firearm in public and a civil plaintiff wants to sue for the projectile killing his dog, the plea of nolo contendere would take care of the criminal case but not summarily act as an admission of negligence in the civil case at the same time.  Some courts may also permit a plea in my best interest.  This means "I just want to get the case over with but I am not admitting guilt."  Every alternative plea that completes the case without a trial is taken by the law to mean guilty.

Where a defendant refuses to speak (or stands mute) the court will enter a not guilty plea on the record.  A plea of not guilty is a denial of every material allegation in the indictment or information.  At this stage the court will set a trial date.

A defendant may initially enter a plea of not guilty.  Only the defendant knows his/her true culpability in the matter.  He/She often wants the opportunity to "make a deal" [a plea bargain] to dispose of the case early on.  However, this stage is rarely a strong bargaining position for the defendant.  The State will most likely offer a maximum penalty, if anything at all.  As the case progresses and the evidence is better understood, the defendant could move into a stronger bargaining position.

After discovering what the State's evidence [e.g. the testimony of its witnesses; and the real or physical evidence of the case] will show at trial and evaluating the probable trial results, the attorney may recommend that the defendant consider a change of plea.  The plea bargaining process is a highly specialized area of expertise requiring a seasoned and skilled trial attorney to achieve the best results.

The trial court has discretion to permit a change of plea and wrap the case up without a trial.  This could be based upon an agreement with the prosecutor called a negotiated plea bargain or it could be an open plea to the court.  When considering a possible change of plea, the defendant must fully understand all of the terms and ramifications.  There must be a factual basis for the plea.  The defendant must understand the significance of the change of plea.  The change of plea must be 100% voluntary on the part of the defendant before the court will accept the change of plea. 

Defer to the advice of the Defense Attorney who has years of experience in these matters and will professionally guide his client as he/she endeavors to understand court procedure of the parties, charges, arraignment and pleas.

For more helpful information on success strategies for a person charged with a crime, contact

Ira Still, Esquire
Web:            http://www.istilldefendliberty.com/
Info Blog:   http://istilldefendliberty.blogspot.com/

Ira Still has been a criminal defense trial lawyer in Florida for over 30 years.  He successfully represents his clients on all crimes and in all courts.  Ira has had many, many jury trials and is well known in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale as a very successful trial and appellate lawyer. He has argued death penalty collateral appeals in the Florida Supreme Court and in various District Courts of Appeal.  He has filed briefs in the United States Supreme Court.  Ira has tried high profile cases such as police shooting the wrong person; persons charged with shooting police; capital murder and capital sexual battery; violent crimes; drug trafficking; and virtually every other criminal charge.  Ira is also an author, speaker, teacher, mentor and coach.

© 2009.  The Law Offices of Ira Still