An arraignment hearing is a legal proceeding in which a judge reads the criminal charges against an accused person. Unless the defense attorney waives the reading, the first thing the judge does at an arraignment is let the defendant know exactly what the charges are against him. An arraignment is not a trial, and no decision is made about evidence, guilt or innocence. For misdemeanors, the accused may not even have to appear. At an arraignment, the accused also enters a plea, and the judge makes a decision about bail. Some states require an arraignment within 72 hours of arrest, but specific time requirements vary widely from court to court.
Reading of the Charges
Before the judge reads the charges, he asks the accused if he has an attorney. If he does not and cannot afford one, the accused can request a public defender to represent him. The judge then asks the accused whether he wants to waive the reading of charges. A formal reading includes highly technical, step-by-step descriptions of the charges, so the defense attorney usually asks that the reading be waived. This is simply to speed things up. The judge will still inform the accused of the charges in basic, everyday language and advise him of his rights.
Entering a Plea
The judge asks the accused to enter a plea. The choices are guilty, not guilty or no contest. The prosecution is not obligated to accept a guilty plea, so a quick plea bargain deal is not an absolute certainty. If the accused pleads not guilty, the judge will decide whether to release the defendant on his own recognizance or to demand bail. A plea of no contest -- or in some jurisdictions, "standing mute" -- means the accused does not enter a plea but is exercising his right to remain silent.
Once the plea is entered, the judge decides whether to set bail. If bail is set, the accused must pay 10 percent of the bail amount in order to be freed before trial. If the charges are minor, the accused may simply be released. For serious charges, bail is likely, and the amount is based on several factors, including the seriousness of the crime, prior criminal record or warrants, and ties to the community. If a defendant who is out on bail doesn't show up for trial, the court issues a warrant for his arrest, his bail is forfeited and law enforcement attempts to locate and take him into custody. Serious felonies may result in no bail, and the judge will order the defendant to be ordered jailed until trial.
Future Court Dates
At an arraignment, a judge also assigns future court dates. Consulting with an attorney is the best option for a defendant to determine how to proceed. The accused must decide whether to waive his right to a speedy trial. The attorney will indicate how much time he needs to prepare the case. In general, the more serious the charges, the more time the attorney will need. The judge will inform the defendant of when to next appear in court, and the arraignment is finished.
Matt Rauscher has been writing professionally since 1996, recently serving as a contributing writer/film critic for "Instinct Magazine." He is also a novelist and co-author of a Chicago city guidebook. In 1997, Rauscher graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in rhetoric.