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What Happens During a First Appearance in a Florida Domestic Violence Case?

Following a Florida domestic violence arrest, the next step in the judicial process is a first appearance.

As our Broward domestic violence defense lawyers can explain, the first appearance (also sometimes referred to as an arraignment) is a brief hearing at which defendants are informed of:

  • The charges against them.
  • Their right to an attorney.
  • Their right to remain silent.
  • Their right to communicate with their lawyer.
  • Their right to a preliminary hearing (if facing felony charges).

This is also when the court can set bond and stipulate any special conditions for pretrial release.

If you’re facing a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, you will have the opportunity at the first appearance to enter a plea. If you don’t have an attorney yet (but you plan to get one), a not guilty plea will be entered and a trial date will be set.

If you’re facing a felony charge, you won’t enter a plea at this time. A felony case will be scheduled for a preliminary hearing, at which time the judge decides if there is enough evidence of probable cause for the charge (which they almost always do).

Start to finish, a first appearance usually takes 15 minutes - tops.

A Florida defendant’s right to a first appearance is spelled out in Florida Rule 3.130, which stipulates anyone who is arrested and denied release right after booking is entitled to a first appearance before a judge, ideally within 24 hours of arrest. It can take longer if the arrest occurred on the weekend or right before a holiday.

Some jurisdictions will transport defendants from the jail to the court for their first appearance, but it’s pretty common these days for courts to conduct these proceedings via satellite video - the judge in the courthouse and the defendant appearing remotely from jail.

How Do I Know if I’m Eligible for Pretrial Release?

There is a legislative presumption in favor of releasing Florida criminal defendants from jail on non-monetary conditions. In fact, there are many crimes for which the accused can expect to be arrested, booked, and bonded out of jail on their own recognizance within a few hours.

Domestic violence is not one of those offenses.

Per F.S. 907.041(4)(c), defendants accused of more serious crimes - including domestic violence, as defined in F.S. 741.28 - are required to have a first appearance, post monetary bond (if eligible), and agree to follow certain rules upon release. This applies to defendants in misdemeanor domestic violence cases as well as felonies.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2007 approved a change to Rule 3.131(b)(4), holding that no person charged with a “dangerous crime” (such as domestic violence) can be released on non-monetary conditions under the supervision of pretrial release services unless that service is first able to certify that they investigated and/or verified the conditions set forth in F.S. 907.041(3)(b), which include:

  • The circumstances of the accused’s family, employment, financial resources, character, mental condition, and length of residence in the community.
  • The accused’s record of convictions, appearances at court proceedings, and flight risk to avoid prosecution.
  • Other facts necessary to assist the court in determining whether the accused is indigent and whether they should be released under supervision.

Once that information is gathered and presented to the court, Florida judges have broad discretion in setting special conditions for release. Short of homicide, most criminal defendants will have the opportunity for pretrial release, though the bond amount and stringency of special conditions imposed will depend on the severity of the alleged crime.

Some of the special conditions commonly ordered in Florida domestic violence cases:

  • No contact with the alleged victim.
  • Living separately from the alleged victim.
  • Relinquish possession of any firearm or weapon.
  • No possession or use of drugs or alcohol.
  • GPS monitoring (usually with an ankle bracelet).
  • House arrest.
  • No participation in criminal activity.

Note: If you’re released from jail but fail to appear at subsequent hearings or violate any of the other court-ordered special conditions, you can be returned to custody and forced to remain incarcerated until trial.

Preparing for First Appearance on Domestic Violence Charge

Knowing that you cannot post bond and secure release from jail before your first appearance, it’s a good idea to use this time to collect your thoughts and prepare as best you can.

This is NOT your trial date. In fact, there’s a good chance your case won’t even go to trial. Cases that aren’t dismissed outright usually end in plea deals. Think of a first appearance as more of a “table setting” for what’s to come.

Beyond that, some tips for decorum:

  • Be polite. This is obviously an emotionally stressful time for you, but it is very important that you avoid lashing out - to the judge, the bailiff, the prosecutor, or anyone else. This is especially if you’re accused of a violent crime. The last thing you want to display to the court is a short fuse.
  • Speak only when spoken to and keep your answers short. Avoid interrupting the judge, the prosecutor, or anyone else while they’re speaking. This is not your opportunity to explain what happened or defend yourself. That’s your attorney’s job, and they’ll be more effective at it the less you say.
  • Remain alert and keep calm. Of course you are nervous, stressed, angry, tired, and frustrated. But do your best to pay attention and remain composed.
  • Ask for a lawyer. If the charge you’re facing carries a possible jail sentence, you’re entitled to have a defense lawyer appointed if you can’t afford one.

If you have been charged with domestic violence in South Florida, call The Ansara Law Firm today for your free initial consultation at (954) 761-4011.

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