Symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom, law and justice concept.

You’re probably here because you or someone you know will attend an arraignment soon.

Or maybe you’re here because you’re simply curious about how arraignment works and how long it takes before someone is arraigned.

It could also be because the word has been repeated multiple times in one of your favorite crime drama series. And so now you want to know what it actually is.

Well, whatever your reason is, this post will provide you with clear, legalese-free answers about arraignment starting with its definition.

What is an arraignment?

Arraignment is an important first step in the criminal process. It’s a court hearing that the defendant (the person being accused) must attend – whether the defendant is out on bail or inside a jail.

Arraignment is held for the following reasons:

1. For the court to inform the defendant of the charges that are being made against him or her.
In some states, the defendant will be informed by the court clerk of the charge’s title only (e.g. armed robbery, embezzlement, drug trafficking). In other states, the defendant will be informed of the title as well as the complete details of the accusation.

2. For the court to inform the defendant of his or her constitutional rights.
This is similar to Miranda Rights in the sense that the defendant will be informed that he or she will have the right to seek an attorney. Since it’s the state’s job to ensure that the defendant will have equal access to justice, an attorney will be provided to the defendant if he or she cannot afford to hire one.

3. For the defendant to enter his or her plea.
There are 3 common types of pleas: Not Guilty, Guilty, and Nolo Contendere (No Contest). Some states also have a “best interest” plea, but it is rarely used.

Not Guilty
This means that the defendant is saying that he or she is not guilty of all the charges. It’s now the state’s turn to prove that the defendant is. By the way, the judge and the prosecutor will not hold it against the defendant if he or she enters a not guilty plea. They know that this is a legal move, and not a means to simply get off the hook.

A guilty plea is an outright admission of guilt. The defendant is basically saying, “Yes, I did it.” When the defendant enters this plea, he or she is admitting to the charges made against him or her. It also means that the defendant is well aware that the act that he or she has committed is unlawful, and that there’s no defense for those actions.

Nolo Contendere (No Contest)
A plea of nolo contendere or no contest means that the defendant is not contesting the charges. A no contest plea is not exactly the same as a guilty plea. Well, it almost is, but still not quite.

For one, there’s no admission of guilt. Yes, the defendant is not contesting the charges, but he’s not admitting guilt either. Secondly, no one can sue the defendant civilly since there’s no legal proof of guilt.

During an arraignment, if bail has not already been set, the judge will also inform the defendant if he or she meets the requirements for bail.

The judge will carefully check different factors for this such as the defendant’s criminal history, his character, ties to the community, and the defendant’s potential danger to the community once released.    

Arraignment only takes a couple of minutes. In most states, each defendant physically comes to court to be arraigned by a judge.

Modern technology, however, has made the process faster and more convenient. In fact, a few states use video conferencing for arraignment nowadays.

Skipping Arraignment

Can a defendant skip it? No. And if he or she does, there will be consequences. The judge will most likely issue a bench warrant to a no-show defendant.

A bench warrant is similar to an arrest warrant. It’s a written order by a judge that a defendant is arrested and brought to the court.

So if the defendant with a bench warrant gets pulled over by a cop someday, that encounter will most likely lead to an arrest. If the charge is a felony charge, authorities might not wait until the defendant is pulled over someday but instead will go to the defendant’s home, work and relative’s houses to locate and arrest the defendant. 

If a bail bondsman posted bond on the defendant’s behalf, the former will be given a specific number of days by the judge to find the defendant. If the bail bondsman fails to present the defendant within the given period, the court will forfeit the bail. This means the bonding company is out the money and will seek to recover it from the person that signed the bail contract. 

But there are cases wherein the defendant can waive appearance. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states that the defendant may not be present during arraignment if the following rules are met:

  • The defendant has been charged by indictment or misdemeanor information;
  • The defendant has waived appearance. The written waiver has to be signed by the defendant and the defense counsel. They have to acknowledge that a copy of the indictment has been received and that the plea is not guilty;
  • The waiver is accepted by the court.

When is arraignment held?

If the person is in jail, arraignment usually takes within 48 hours after an arrest. It’ll take longer if the person is out on bail. There are counties, however, in which the arraignment does not happen within that time frame. 

But not too long because the Sixth Amendment clearly states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

It shouldn’t take months or years before a person is arraigned. If there’s such a delay despite the issuance of the indictment, the defendant’s lawyer can ask to have the case dismissed.

The presence of a lawyer is not necessary during an arraignment. But the need for one will still depend on the charges and the state. In some states, arraignment is combined with a pre-trial hearing, so a lawyer is definitely required.

In any case, having a lawyer will be beneficial. A lawyer can tell the defendant how to respond to the judge’s question as well as explain the likely outcome of the case.