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What Is an Arraignment Hearing?

An arraignment is a first appearance signifying the start of the criminal trial process. It comes shortly after a defendant's arrest and booking, often combined with a bail hearing. The arraignment is typically the first court date for defendants who were not arrested but served with a summons or citation.

A judge will read the charges against the defendant at this court appearance. If bail has not yet been set, it's addressed at the arraignment court hearing. After the judge informs a defendant of their rights, the defendant or their lawyer will enter a plea to the charges. This process usually occurs in a courtroom. Sometimes arraignments happen in a particular room inside the jail or even through a video feed.

In felony cases, the arraignment is sometimes delayed until after a grand jury returns an indictment. The exact process and rules may differ from state to state. But the basic structure of an arraignment hearing is the same for all defendants.

The Arraignment Process at a Glance

This is often the first time a defendant sees a judge in their case. The defendant may have an attorney. If they do not, the court can appoint a lawyer for them. Either way, the judge will inform the defendant of important trial rights before proceeding.

The defendant is then given a copy of the criminal complaint filed with the court. This is a document listing the criminal charges against the defendant. The criminal complaint also includes a summary of facts explaining the probable cause to charge the defendant.

A judge will ask the defendant whether they understand the criminal charges against them. At this stage in the court proceedings, it doesn't matter whether the defendant agrees with the charges. Do not argue the facts of the case. Or make statements that will count against you. The judge isn't allowed to consider any evidence at this hearing.

Next, the defendant will plead to the charges. There are three options: guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A plea of no contest (nolo contendere) is rare. It means the person does not agree that they committed a crime but is willing to accept a conviction. Most defendants enter a "not guilty" plea. Any other plea could end the criminal trial process on the spot.

Upon a not-guilty plea, the judge will decide on bail. This is a conditional release pending a jury trial. A defendant's options include release on their own recognizance, or a judge may set bail. Other times, the defendant may return to jail until the trial. A judge will issue a bench warrant if you fail to appear for future court dates.

State Variations in the Arraignment Process

Criminal laws vary between jurisdictions. Some states require the following:

  • Counsel be present at arraignment unless waived
  • Defendants be informed of specific constitutional rights
  • Defendants be advised about the consequences of a conviction.

Florida law requires that suspects in custody have an arraignment within 24 hours of the arrest, either in person or by live video feed. In California, bail and release conditions are discussed during the arraignment hearing. For misdemeanor offenses, defendants can have their attorney appear on their behalf, but a defendant must appear in person for felony charges.

The Right to Counsel at Arraignment

When a criminal defendant faces the possibility of jail time, they have a constitutional right to the help of an attorney (counsel). This applies regardless of the defendant's ability to pay. If a defendant can't afford to hire a criminal defense lawyer, the court will assign one at no cost.

These court-appointed attorneys are also known as public defenders or PDs. PDs zealously protect a defendant's rights at all stages of the criminal process, including future court dates such as:

Get Legal Advice From an Attorney

Having a strong legal team in place could change the outcome of your criminal case. A defendant's attorney can:

  • Argue for a lower amount of bail
  • Assist a defendant in a plan to post bail
  • Request less restrictive conditions of release
  • Demand a speedy trial
  • Submit pre-trial motions
  • Negotiate a plea bargain
  • Argue mitigating factors in a sentencing hearing

Even misdemeanor cases can appear on your criminal record. Convictions for offenses such as domestic violence or driving under the influence (DUI) may affect where you live and work. Contact a seasoned criminal defense attorney in your community. They can give you a second legal opinion in your case. Or even supplement your court-appointed attorney.

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