What is the difference between arraignment and preliminary arraignment in Philadelphia?

What is an arraignment?

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

A common question we receive as criminal defense lawyers is “What happens at arraignment?” In general, the answer is not much. However, there are two types of arraignments when a defendant is charged with a felony case in Philadelphia, so it is important to understand the difference between the two types.

What happens at the Preliminary Arraignment? 

The first type of arraignment that occurs after a defendant has been charged with a crime in Philadelphia is the preliminary arraignment. The preliminary arraignment takes place in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center. Once the defendant has been arrested, the defendant will typically be held at the police station for 10-20 hours while they are processed by the police. During that 10-20 hour period, the police will prepare reports, court officers will investigate the defendant’s background, call a family member to verify the defendant’s address, and make a bail recommendation, and the District Attorney’s Office will decide on the final charges that the defendant will face. Once police and court officials complete that process, a trial commissioner will hold a hearing to advise the defendant of the charges and set bail. This hearing is called the preliminary arraignment.

Do I need a lawyer for Preliminary Arraignment? 

The preliminary arraignment takes place in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center roughly 10-20 hours after a defendant has been arrested. The trial commissioner, defense counsel if counsel has been retained, a public defender intern, and a District Attorney’s Office intern are all physically present in the building. The defendant participates in the hearing by video form the police station where the defendant is still being held. The commissioner will then read the charges to the defendant, provide the defendant with date of the first court hearing, and then accept argument from the prosecution and the defense as to what bail should be required before the defendant can be released.

Under the current system, the prosecution is generally asking for little or no bail for many non-violent crimes and misdemeanors, but bail can be very high for violent crimes, defendants with lengthy prior records, and certain felony offenses. Therefore, it is important, when possible, that you retain an attorney prior to turning yourself in so that you can have an attorney present for the bail hearing and get the lowest possible bail.

What happens after the Preliminary Arraignment? 

If the defendant quickly makes bail (which can be paid online, in the courthouse, or at the prison), then the defendant will be released with a subpoena to return for a court date. If the defendant cannot make bail, then the defendant will be transported to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility and detained until the defendant either makes bail, bail gets reduced, or the case gets resolved. This process is the preliminary arraignment, and it is an important part of the criminal justice process. Either way, in a felony case, the accused will receive a subpoena for a preliminary hearing court date. 

What is Arraignment? 

Arraignment is a less important part of the process than the preliminary arraignment. In Philadelphia, the arraignment generally takes place only in a felony case. When a defendant is charged with a felony in Philadelphia, the first court hearing after the preliminary arraignment is a preliminary hearing which takes place in front of a Municipal Court judge. At that hearing, the Municipal Court judge must determine whether there is enough evidence that the case should go forward to the Court of Common Pleas on felony charges, be remanded to the Municipal Court on misdemeanor charges, or be dismissed altogether. Assuming the prosecution introduces enough evidence that a felony occurred and the defendant committed the felony to send the case to the Court of Common Pleas, the court date after the preliminary hearing will be the arraignment. 

Very little, if anything, actually happens at the arraignment in a felony case. If the defendant has retained a private criminal defense attorney, that attorney can waive the hearing so that the defendant will not have to appear. The defendant will then simply receive a new court date for a Pre-Trial Conference (SMART Room listing) at which the prosecution will make a plea offer and provide the defense with discovery such as the police reports, witness statements, videos, and other things of that nature. If the defendant is in custody due to a probation detainer or because the defendant does not make bail, then the defendant will not even be brought to the arraignment and will simply receive a new court date. If the defendant does not retain counsel and has a public defender, then the defendant will typically have to appear for the arraignment.

The trial commissioner will advise the defendant of the charges that have survived the preliminary hearing, the defense attorney will enter a not guilty plea on behalf of the defendant, and the parties will discuss whether there is any discovery that has been passed or whether discovery remains outstanding. The defendant will then receive a subpoena for the next court date, which will be the previously-discusssed Pre-Trial Conference (“SMART room” in Philadelphia). 

In a misdemeanor case, the accused technically has the right to be arraigned by a Municipal Court judge directly before the trial takes place. This typically does not provide any benefit to the accused, so the defense will usually waive the arraignment in a misdemeanor case, as well. 

The differences between the two hearings  

The bottom line is that the preliminary arraignment takes place right at the beginning of the case and is an extremely important hearing. It is a crucial hearing in which the defense attorney can fight for low bail so that the client is not held in custody pending the resolution of the charges. The arraignment, however, is relatively insignificant and can typically be waived so that the defendant does not have to miss work or incur the cost in terms of time and lost wages of attending court for a date on which very little will happen.

Are you facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or may be under investigation by law enforcement, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys have successfully defended thousands of clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We offer a free 15-criminal defense strategy session to each potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding criminal defense lawyer today.