When charged with a crime, or a motor vehicle violation, an accused person’s first court proceeding is an arraignment. At an arraignment on a violation or a misdemeanor, the accused has the option of pleading guilty that day or requesting a trial and coming back a different day.
It’s different with a felony.
At a felony arraignment, the court will not allow the accused to enter a guilty plea. The issues are (1) bail (whether the accused will be held in jail, required to post bail, or released), (2) attorney (whether the accused will hire one or apply for a public defender), and (3) probable cause (whether the police have enough evidence that the accused committed a felony).
So, the accused can’t just plead guilty to a felony arraignment, but they can in a misdemeanor or violation case. It is tempting, because if you are the accused, you can get it over with that day. Court officials will encourage you to talk to the police about your case, and the police will tell you what penalty they will recommend if you plead guilty that day. All you have to do is go in front of the judge and enter the plea, and your case is done.
Are there good reasons to just plead guilty? Sure, if you are guilty, if the penalty is minor, and if you know for sure that a conviction won’t cause you to lose your license or have any impact on your job, housing, or other benefits.
Are there good reasons not to just plead guilty? Yes, several.
First, the penalty may not be as minor as it seems. Especially if it’s a motor vehicle offense, certain convictions can have an impact on your license. If it’s a criminal conviction, especially if it’s “domestic violence related,” it might impact your employment or your ability to possess a firearm. You should not plead guilty to anything unless you are aware of all the consequences a conviction may have.
Second, you may not be guilty. A lawyer might be able to get copies of the police reports and other material gathered in your case and make an argument that you should not be convicted of the offense charged, or maybe, of any offense at all. Or a lawyer might discover that the police violated your rights in a significant way. If that is so, you are likely to get a much better result in your case than what you are being offered the day of your arraignment.
Third, with a lawyer, you might be able to get a better result even if you are guilty. On the day of the arraignment, the prosecutor will typically offer you the “standard penalty” for the offense – or that is what they will tell you they are doing. While this may be so, it may also be that if you have a lawyer, you can get a better deal. A lawyer will know if what you have been offered is fair. They will be able to talk to the prosecutor after getting the reports in your case, away from the busy courtroom. Lawyers are experienced at bringing facts that help their clients to the attention of prosecutors, and arguing against facts that are more damaging.
These things mean that while you will not get the case done the day of arraignment, and you will spend some money to hire a lawyer, you could be better off than if you just plead guilty.