What to Expect at Your First Appearance in NC court

Once you are charged with a crime in North Carolina, the court process begins. As the defendant, your first real involvement with the court will be at your first appearance as this is your first opportunity to be heard in court on the matter. Here is what you can expect at your first appearance in North Carolina.

            What is a first appearance?

            All defendants charged with a felony or misdemeanor where the superior court has original jurisdiction are entitled to a first appearance. The first appearance can be continued, but not waived. As the defendant, you are expected to appear at your first appearance as this hearing is an important right. However, it is permissible for the defendant’s attorney to appear on the defendant’s behalf. 

            The first appearance is where the details are worked out to ensure a smooth court process in your case. The judge will make sure the charges are proper and understood by the defendant and that the defendant understands his or her rights and has secured counsel. The first appearance is also when future hearings are scheduled. 

            Typically held within a day or two of the arrest, the first appearance must be held within ninety-six hours from the time of the arrest or at the first regular session of district court held in that county, whichever occurs first if the defendant is in custody. The time requirement does not apply if the defendant was detained then released or never taken into custody. 

            What happens at the first appearance?

            At the first appearance, the judge will take a brief inventory of your case, looking at the circumstances surrounding your arrest to ensure the charges are appropriate and without defect, and the judge will ensure the defendant is prepared to move forward in the case. This includes warning the defendant of the right against self-incrimination, assuring the defendant’s right to counsel, examining the charges and taking care to ensure the defendant understands and has a copy of them, notifying the prosecutor of any defective or improper charges, and reviewing or setting pretrial release conditions. Finally, the judge will schedule the probable cause hearing as the next step in the case, to occur between five and fifteen days after the first appearance unless the hearing is waived in writing by the defendant.

            What if my right to a first appearance was violated?

            Generally, the failure to hold a first appearance hearing or to follow proper procedures does not affect the validity of the trial. However, if the defendant can show that his or her constitutional rights were prejudiced because of an improper first appearance hearing, it could impact the trial. Your rights as a defendant are important. If your right to a first appearance or other rights has been violated, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your team fighting to protect your rights to ensure you receive a fair and just trial, from arrest to the first appearance and beyond.