What is a First Appearance?

GavelWhen people think of the trial process, many people picture heated arguments between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the presentation of evidence, the cross-examination of witnesses and the verdict from a jury. However, court proceedings always begin well before all of that. If the defendant is charged with a felony, he or she may have been arrested and then brought before the court to have a bond set by the judge to determine under what circumstances (or whether at all) he or she will be released pending trial. In other circumstances, a defendant’s bond may have already been set by a judge (often called a bench warrant) and that person may have been arrested on that warrant and brought before the court if they are unable to post the bail.

A court date is then set for a “preliminary hearing” for the judge to establish whether probable cause exists for the case to proceed.  If probable cause is found, the case is then transferred to the trial room for further proceedings. If not, the case is dismissed. At this time, the defendant may have been indicted in the alternative.  If this happens, the case is also transferred to the trial room for further proceedings.

The case then appears before the assigned trial judge, in what is often referred to as the “first appearance”, although as you can see, it is usually not really the first time that a defendant has appeared before a judge on the matter for which they have been charged. If a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor, however, they may never need to appear in court for a bond hearing and their very first appearance in court may, in fact, be in the trial room. Those accused of crimes in Chicago and across Illinois should be aware of what it is like in the event that they ever have to go through the process. Here is some information on what typically happens in a defendant’s “first appearance” in court, also known as an arraignment.

It should be noted that this information applies generally to courts across Illinois, but most specifically to Chicago and Cook County Court proceedings. Court events in other counties such as DuPage, Will, Kane, Lake, and McHenry vary slightly as do other parts of the state.  Your attorney can give you more specific advice when you call for information.

The Right to an Attorney

If a criminal defense attorney representing the defendant is not present at the arraignment, the judge must also ask if they currently have any counsel. Defendants who say they do not will then be asked if they are currently looking for an attorney and if they are capable of hiring one. People who meet specific criteria may be deemed indigent, or lacking the finances necessary to afford a private lawyer, and may then have a public defender assigned to represent them during the case.

Reading of the Charges

This court appearance begins with the judge reading the offense or offenses for which the defendant has been accused of committing. The purpose of this is to ensure that the defendant is aware, without any doubt, why he or she is appearing in court. For the same reason, the judge must also inform the defendant of the potential penalties that he or she faces if found guilty of these charges. The court will also state the maximum fines they may have to pay, the maximum time they may have to serve in jail, in prison, and/or on probation; and any other relevant statutory obligations they may have to fulfill if found guilty of these charges.

The defendant is entitled to an attorney at this stage, and whether a private attorney or a Public Defender that has been provided free of charge, that attorney is allowed to request that the judge waive this part of the arraignment. After all, the attorney will likely already understand exactly what their client is facing, and they can explain everything to the defendant on their own time. Though it would not be considered a “formal” arraignment, skipping the reading of the charges is rather common. It does not impact the case in any way except for making this portion of the court appearance shorter.

Entering a Plea During a First Appearance

Near the end of the arraignment, the defendant must enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If they plead guilty, the trial process is over, and the judge either does the sentencing right then and there or arranges a date for sentencing. If they instead plead not guilty (as is true in almost every case), then the process continues, and the case is either transferred immediately to a trial room or another date is scheduled to appear again in that room. At this time, the defendant’s attorney may make an oral motion for discovery, which is a request for the information and police reports that the prosecution will use during the trial.

The defendant and their attorney may also choose to negotiate a plea agreement at this time with the prosecutor (or more typically, they will choose to wait until they have fully reviewed the discovery). In exchange for pleading guilty to more minor charges, the defendant may sometimes receive a lighter sentence. Other times, plea negotiations with the prosecutor may take place over a period of months or in some cases, even years. If no agreement can be reached, a trial will eventually take place. The defendant will either be found Not Guilty or Guilty, in which case the judge might decide to give the defendant a much harsher punishment.

If you or a loved one faces misdemeanor or felony charges, you will want to find an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The Chicago criminal defense lawyers at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC are very knowledgeable in legal procedure and can help guide you and defend you throughout the process. We always work hard to find a resolution that best benefits our client. Contact us today at (312) 644-0444 for a free consultation and more information.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : April 22, 2023