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Clerk’s Arraignments for Misdemeanors in California Criminal Court

In California, arraignments are generally the first time that a criminal defendant makes their appearance in court. Every arraignment is slightly different because no two cases and no two courts are exactly the same. If you are facing misdemeanor criminal charges in California and want to learn more about what happens at an arraignment, I have video on my Youtube channel about it.

Depending on the particular court you’re in, the judge you’re in front of, etc, you may have the option of doing something called a Clerk’s Arraignment instead. It is what it sounds like — you get arraigned in front of a court clerk (i.e. a non-judge who just works for the court) as opposed to an actual judge or court commissioner. Some of you might be going ‘Whoa, what? Is that legal?’ The answer is that it is, but – in my experience at least – it is not common. I would guess that I encounter it less than 10% of the time on misdemeanor cases. All of those are on cases where the defendant has his or her own attorney (i.e. not the public defender). I have never seen a Clerk’s Arraignment done in a case where the defendant is appearing without a lawyer. If you have, leave me a comment down below.

There are many reasons why a Clerk’s Arraignment might be done. One is speed. For the vast majority of misdemeanor cases, arraignment is routine and uneventful for an attorney to do. Additionally, misdemeanors are very common so it is not unusual for an attorney to wait in line for 45 or more minutes to handle an arraignment. A Clerk’s Arraignment allows an attorney to handle their client’s misdemeanor arraignment in maybe 5 minutes. Second, a Clerk’s Arraignment is a better use of the court’s resources. There are more court clerks compared to judges so if something routine and uneventful can be handled by a court clerk, that frees up the judge to handle other things that the court clerk cannot.

In my experience in California state court, at least, I am surprised that Clerk’s Arraignments are not more common than they are. Funding for the courts is always being slashed. It might be me, but the criminal courts always seem to me to be super crowded. In the criminal courts I frequent, about 10% of the courtrooms are routinely vacant because there aren’t enough judges to fill them. If something like a Clerk’s Arraignment can save time and money, it would seem like a logical thing to do.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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