What Is the Process for an Arraignment Hearing?
One of the first steps of the criminal trial process is the arraignment. Sometimes, an arraignment comes shortly after the arrest and booking of a defendant, when it is typically combined with a bail hearing. For those defendants who are never arrested (because they were served with a summons or citation instead), the arraignment is typically their first court date. In felony cases, the arraignment is sometimes delayed until after the grand jury returns an indictment. Despite the differences in process, the basic structure of an arraignment hearing is the same for all defendants.
At an arraignment, a judge will formally state the charges against the defendant. If bail has not yet been set in the case, it will be addressed at arraignment. Then, the defendant will be apprised of their rights and asked to enter a plea to the charges. This process would usually take place in a courtroom, but sometimes arraignments occur in a special room inside the jail, or even through a video feed.
Although the exact process and rules may differ from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, this article provides a general overview of what to expect at an arraignment hearing.
The Arraignment Process at a Glance
At an arraignment hearing, a judge will read the criminal charges against the accused (now called the "defendant"), and ask the defendant whether they understand the charges (regardless of whether they agree with them). The defendant will be asked if they have an attorney. If they do not, the court can appoint them a lawyer. Either way, the judge will be sure to inform the defendant of important trial rights before proceeding.
Next the defendant will be asked how they plead to the charges. There are three options: guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A plea of no contest means that the person is not agreeing that they committed a crime, but they are willing to accept a conviction. Any plea other than "not guilty" could end the criminal trial process on the spot.
The judge will then make a decision or will review the decision about bail. The defendant may be released on their own recognizance or may be told to post a certain amount of bail.
The arraignment is a formal process designed to ensure the protection of the defendant's rights. It is often the first time that a defendant sees a judge in their case, and sometimes that can lead to confusion. A defendant should never try to argue the facts of the case or present evidence during the arraignment. The judge is not allowed to consider any evidence of guilt or innocence at this hearing, but statements made by defendants at arraignment might be incriminating and used against them later.
State Variations in the Arraignment Process
As stated above, the rules and procedures for criminal arraignments vary by state. For instance, some states require counsel to be present. Some require defendants to be informed of certain specific constitutional rights and consequences of conviction. Sometimes an argument is held about bail and bail conditions. Other times, the defendant may also be taken back to jail until the trial.
Florida law requires that suspects held in custody must be arraigned within 24 hours of the arrest, either in person or by live video feed. In California, bail and release are discussed during the arraignment hearing and defendants can have their attorney represent them in their place for misdemeanor charges. The defendant must appear in person for felony charges.
Arraignment and the Right to Counsel
If a criminal defendant faces the possibility of jail time, they have a constitutional right to the assistance of an attorney, or "counsel," regardless of the defendant's ability to pay. If the defendant wishes to be represented by an attorney but can't afford to hire one, a government-appointed attorney will be assigned at no cost to the defendant.
Usually called "public defenders," these government-appointed defense attorneys are responsible for zealously protecting a defendant's rights at all stages of the criminal process.
Learn More About Arraignments by Speaking With an Attorney
While defendants who meet certain criteria are entitled to a court-appointed attorney during a criminal case, you could also benefit from reaching out to a seasoned criminal defense attorney in your community. If anything, they could provide you with a second legal opinion in your case or even supplement your court-appointed attorney. They could also start working for you before a court-appointed attorney is named. Having a strong legal team in place could change the outcome in your case.
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