What is an Arraignment?
An arraignment is the first step of a criminal case after an arrest. Its purpose is to inform the accused person of the charges against him.
The U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to know what they are accused of. The Founding Fathers added the “arraignment” clause to protect Americans from languishing in jail due to political persecution. Since the Sixth Amendment closely ties arraignments to the right to speedy trials, arraignments usually occur within 72 hours after arrest.
An arraignment is composed of several important steps. Thus, the process is sometimes split into two stages.
The First Stage
- An accused person appears before a judge and verifies that he or she is, indeed, the person named in the charges.
- The accused person then hears the specific criminal charges and receives a written document to this effect. After being formally charged, the accused becomes the defendant.
- The defendant has an opportunity to apply for a court-appointed attorney, retain private counsel or waive the right to an attorney.
At this point the arraignment may be rescheduled. A later date allows the defendant to have legal counsel present when he or she enters a plea. This is important because entering a plea officially puts the defendant on the record.
The Second Stage (The Arraignment)
The defendant pleads guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere (“no contest”).
- Unless the defendant pleads guilty, the judge sets a schedule for the trial, including the dates for a preliminary hearing if necessary, any pretrial motions and the trial itself. For simple cases, like traffic violations, a defendant may plead guilty and pay a fine rather than undergo a trial. In these cases, the arraignment is over.
- Even if bail has already been set, it is often revisited with a bail-bond hearing following the arraignment.
Compared to a trial, an arraignment may seem like a simple procedure. After all, at an arraignment, there are no witnesses testifying, no jury to convince and no pieces of evidence to present. However, an arraignment is a serious legal matter that should not be taken lightly.
Defendants who represent themselves, even at arraignments, are taking large risks, especially since bail is reviewed and a trial is proposed in a relatively brief span of time. In addition, just like a physician is frequently able to offer more assistance to a patient whose malady is diagnosed early, a criminal defense attorney can often better protect a client when the attorney is involved in the case from the very beginning.
To learn more about the arraignment process, get in touch with Rand Mintzer at 713-862-8880.