Arraignment

An arraignment is a hearing at which a person accused of a crime is called before the court to hear the charges against him. In many jurisdictions, the first appearance a defendant makes before the court, often for the purpose of requesting bail, is referred to as an arraignment, however a true arraignment occurs after the defendant has been arrested and formally charged. During such a hearing, the defendant enters a plea, usually “guilty” or “not guilty.” To explore this concept, consider the following arraignment definition.

Definition of Arraignment

Noun

  1. State of being arraigned

Definition of Arraign

Verb

  1. To bring before a court of law to answer to criminal charges or an indictment
  2. To accuse or charge in general; to negatively criticize; to complain about or accuse; to censure, reprimand, or condemn

Origin

1275-1325   Middle English arainen (to call to account)

14th century Old French araisnier (to speak, accuse)

What is Arraignment

The arraignment process brings defendants to court to formally read the charges against them fulfills their Sixth Amendment right to “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against them.” While an arraignment is considered a pre-trial requirement, the Supreme Court has ruled that, as the Sixth Amendment does not require the accused be informed of the formal charges at an arraignment hearing, failure to hold such a hearing is not a reversible error. In other words, as long as the defendant has been informed of the charges, and has been allowed to consult an attorney or otherwise assist in preparing his defense, the lack of a formal arraignment does not prejudice their case.

What is an Arraignment Hearing

The arraignment hearing is a place for the accused to enter a plea, formally expressing to the court whether he is guilty or innocent of the crime. While the most common pleas entered at an arraignment hearing are “guilty” or “not guilty,” other pleas may be acceptable, depending on the jurisdiction. A plea of “nolo contendere,” also referred to as “no contest,” is allowed in some jurisdictions, and signifies the defendant does not claim to be either guilty or not guilty, but agrees to be punished for the crime. This differs from a plea of guilty in that it generally cannot be used in another case against the defendant.

Entering an “Alford Plea” is a way for a defendant to accept punishment for the charges without admitting the facts of the alleged crime. In this the defendant maintains his innocence while admitting that evidence in a trial would likely result in a conviction. This is different from a plea of guilty in that it may prevent conviction on a more serious charge.

Less commonly heard pleas that may be allowed include peremptory pleas, or pleas in bar, which detail extraordinary reasons for which a trail cannot take place. These pleas include:

  • Autrefois convict – a plea in which the defendant claims to have been previously convicted of the same offense and therefore, as double jeopardy applies, he cannot be tried for it again.
  • Autrefois acquit – a plea in which the defendant claims to have been previously acquitted, or found not guilty of the same offense, and therefore cannot be tried for it again.

Both pleas are based on the concept of “double jeopardy,” which prohibits the re-trial of a defendant for the same charges after they have been convicted or acquitted. Either peremptory plea may be entered in conjunction with a plea of not guilty.

What is a Court Date Reservation for Arraignment Only

People receiving a notice from the court stating “court date reservation for arraignment only,” or “court date arraignment only – no trial,” are often confused. While this scheduling statement is most often used in traffic infractions, it may be seen in other situations. This hearing gives the defendant an opportunity to enter a plea and receive a date for a court hearing or trial on the matter. Failing to attend an arraignment hearing, whether the date was assigned by the court or chosen by the defendant, may result in being found guilty of “failure to appear,” which may be punishable by anything from a fine to jail time.

The Difference Between an Indictment and Arraignment

The difference between an indictment and arraignment is that one is a formal notification than an individual is being charged with a crime, and the other a hearing at which the accused enters a plea. An indictment is a written accusation that a person or entity has committed a specific crime. It is issued by a Grand Jury, thus beginning the process of prosecuting that individual. After receiving an indictment, the accused then attends an arraignment to hear the formal charges against him and to enter a plea. This process, the indictment and arraignment process, ensures the accused is made aware of all charges against him, enabling him to organize a defense.

How an Arraignment Differs from a Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing is held in cases that have not been sent to a Grand Jury. At this hearing, the judge decides whether there is enough evidence to require the accused to stand trial. An arraignment is held only after it has already been determined that enough evidence, or “probable cause,” already exists to send the defendant to trial. A defendant may choose not to attend a preliminary hearing, but is required to attend the arraignment in most jurisdictions, and defendants in custody may be required to attend by video arraignment.

Video Arraignment

Transporting prisoners to and from the courthouse each day is a significant expense in any jurisdiction. It also serves as the weakest point in security for keeping prisoners in custody. To alleviate these issues, many jurisdictions hold video arraignments for defendants in custody. Video arraignments are conducted over a secure internet or intranet connection using video conferencing technology from a room inside the detention center. The judge and defendant are able to see, hear, and speak to one another throughout the video conference.

What Happens at a Criminal Arraignment Hearing

A defendant often attends the criminal arraignment hearing with his attorney or, if he has been unable to afford an attorney, he can request that one be assigned to help him with his case during the arraignment. This is usually the first time the defendant comes face to face with the prosecuting attorney who will be handling the case against him.

The Defendant’s Rights

At the arraignment, the defendant is informed of his constitutional rights, including his right to have an attorney assist him throughout all the steps of his case, even if he can’t afford to hire one. This is the first chance the defendant has to request that the court appoint an attorney, a “public defender,” to represent him.

The Charges and a Plea

The court will inform the defendant of the charges against him, as well as the details of each charge, and the defendant will be given a copy of the charges to help him prepare his defense. The defendant is then asked to enter a plea. Defendants who attend the arraignment without an attorney are discouraged from entering a plea of guilty at this point.

Setting Bail

If the defendant is in custody at the time of the arraignment, he or his attorney may ask the court to set the amount of bail required for him to be released. The bail amount depends on the type of crime the defendant is charged with, and whether or not he has strong ties to the community, which means he has family, friends, and a steady job. If the court has reason to believe the defendant is likely to leave town to avoid the trial, referred to as a “flight risk,” the court will usually set a higher bail amount.

If the court has reason to believe the defendant may be a danger to others, bail may be denied, and the defendant held in the jail throughout the proceedings. In the event bail is denied at the arraignment, the defendant may ask for a bail hearing to be scheduled at a later time. At the bail hearing, the judge will reconsider setting bail after hearing arguments against “remand,” or being held in custody.

Waiver of Arraignment

In some jurisdictions, a defendant may sign a Waiver of Arraignment, which is a form that states the defendant has been informed of, and understands, the charges against him, and that he promises to be at future hearings and the trial for those charges. In such jurisdictions, the defense attorney may suggest the defendant sign a Waiver of Arraignment to avoid the time it takes to appear at a hearing when the charges have already been stated and understood.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Arraignment. The arraignment process is used for criminal cases only. In some jurisdictions, criminal arraignment is only used in felony cases.
  • Defendant. Any person accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense. The opposing party in a criminal matter is usually the prosecutor, or District Attorney.
  • Felony Arraignment – A court hearing during which an individual accused of a crime is informed of the charges against him, and informed of his Constitutional rights.
  • Hearing. A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Plea. A defendant’s response to criminal charges or a legal declaration.
  • Probable Cause. Facts and circumstances leading to the belief that an accused person has committed a crime. Probable cause does not arise from a suspicion or a “hunch,” but from observable facts and circumstances.
  • Public Defender. An attorney appointed by the court to represent a defendant who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In large jurisdictions, the office of the Public Defender employs multiple defense attorneys who have a large caseload. In smaller jurisdictions, attorneys for public defense may be appointed from a pool of local private attorneys.

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