What Is an Arraignment?

As the first stage of a criminal proceeding, the arraignment is a formal court appearance before the judge. In some cases the defendant will “attend” by way of a video camera set up in the jail. The arraignment generally takes place within 24 hours following an arrest, the suspect was arrested on a weekend – in which case it will usually be scheduled for the next business day. Also known as a bond hearing or bail hearing, the arraignment is the time and place where bail will be determined.

There is no evidence heard during an arraignment, nor are witnesses called before the judge. The arresting officer is not required to appear, the defendant’s innocence or guilt is not determined at this time and, normally, the defense attorney will speak on his or her behalf. If no private attorney has been retained, the judge will inform the defendant of his or her right to legal representation and will, if needed, assign a public defender.

Formal Charges

A court officer will call the case out by docket number followed by the name of the accused, as in: “The People against John Doe.” The defendant will then be placed in front of the judge (in person or from the jail by video), with the defense attorney and prosecutor present. The detailed public reading of the charges is usually waived, in lieu of a short statement of the charges and a brief review of the specifics.

The Plea

After the charges are read, the defendant’s attorney will enter a plea on their behalf from the following choices:

Not Guilty – The defendant is stating they did not commit the crime for which they are accused; a pre-trial date will be set.

Guilty – The defendant is admitting guilt to the facts of the crime; the judge imposes sentence or remands them to jail awaiting the sentencing hearing.

Nolo Contendere (No contest) – Essentially this is a guilty plea, except that this plea cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit; the judge imposes sentence.

Mute Plea – If the defendant refuses to make a plea the court will enter a not guilty plea for them; a pre-trial date will be set.

Decision to Set Bail

During the arraignment, the judge will be deciding whether to release the suspect on their own recognizance (ROR), or remand him or her to custody without bail, or will set bail a bail amount and possible conditions. The prosecutor offers a statement with respect to bail; how much he thinks it should be and whether he feels the accused is a flight risk. If bail has been requested by the state, the judge will now ask the defense lawyer for a statement. His response will be to challenge the prosecutor or introduce more information on the side of his client’s release. After all parties have made their statements, the judge will decide, and this will be the end of the arraignment.

After Arraignment, What Happens to the Defendant?

If bail has been set, the bailiff will escort the accused back to a holding area or to the jail until bail has been posted. If the judge has chosen an ROR (Release on Recognizance), the defendant will generally be allowed to depart the courtroom, for the promise to return on the court date set. Depending on the state, the suspect may have to return to the jail until the ROR has been processed.

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