One of the first steps in the criminal legal process is the arraignment.

An arraignment hearing is the first court hearing the defendant attends. The judge explains the charges and then asks the defendant how they want to plead: guilty or not guilty.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the defendant pleads not guilty at arraignment. Most of those people eventually plead guilty at a later hearing.

Some people consider this dishonest. Allow me to reassure you: this is not dishonest, this is just a quirk of the system. Even if you are dead guilty, nobody expects you to plead guilty at arraignment.

There’s three reasons for that. First, you can change your plea to guilty at any time, so you lose nothing by starting with a not guilty plea.

Second, in most jurisdictions, the arraignment takes place before the prosecutor makes a plea offer. If you plead guilty at arraignment, you could be passing up an opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

Third, most arraignments occur before you have an attorney. Entering a guilty plea without talking to a criminal defense attorney about your options is usually a bad move. If you can’t afford an attorney, you will be able to request one during the arraignment hearing.

I’m writing all this because I heard from a couple people recently who either pled guilty or were considering pleading guilty at arraignment. That’s a noble impulse: if you think you’re guilty, and the judge asks you if you’re guilty, it feels dishonest to say you’re not.

But don’t think of the arraignment hearing as a serious inquiry as to your guilt. By pleading not guilty, you’re not saying “I swear on my honor I’m innocent.” What you’re really saying is “I would like the full protections of the criminal process guaranteed to me by the United States Constitution.”

Hopefully that’s a little easier to swallow.

This post is intended as general information, not as specific legal advice. Always consult an attorney before making important legal decisions.