After you are arrested for a crime, the first time that you make an appearance in court is usually at a hearing called an arraignment. It is at this time that you go from being a suspect to a defendant in the criminal case. During the arraignment, a criminal court judge will read in detail the criminal charges against you and ask you if you understand the charges.
Right to an Attorney
Legal precedence has affirmed your right to an attorney even during an investigation. If you do not already have an attorney present, the judge will ask you if you plan to hire an attorney or do you need the court to appoint on for you. Defendants who cannot afford legal counsel are appointed attorneys at no cost. The court-appoint attorneys are either employed public defenders or private defense attorneys paid by the state.
The judge will ask you how you intend to plead to the charges, guilty or not guilty. If you plea not guilty, the judge will usually set a date for a trial or a preliminary hearing.
Pleading Not Guilty For You
In most jurisdictions, if you refuse to plea to the charges, the judge will enter a not guilty plea on your behalf, because you do have the right to remain silent. You are permitted to plead , no contest (also known as “nolo contendere”) meaning that you do not disagree with the charge.
Even if you plea guilty at the arraignment, the judge will hold a hearing to hear the evidence against you to determine if you are in fact guilty of the crime with which you are charged. The judge will also have a background check done and determine any aggravating or mitigating circumstances surrounding the crime before pronouncing sentence.
Bail Amount Revisited
Also at the arraignment, the judge will determine the amount of bail necessary for you to be free until your trial or sentencing hearing. Even if the amount of the bail has previously been set, the judge can revisit the issue at the arraignment and alter the amount of bail required.
For serious crimes, such as violent crimes and other felonies, bail is not set until you go before a judge at the arraignment.
Procedures for federal and state arraignments are very similar, except federal procedure dictates strict time restraints.
Within 10 days from the time an indictment or information has been filed and the arrest has been made, an arraignment must take place before a Magistrate Judge.
During an arraignment the defendant is read the charges against him or her and advised of his or her rights. The defendant also enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. If necessary, a trial date is selected and a schedule set for motion hearings, which may include in-court arguments as to suppression of evidence, etc.
Note, the Federal Speedy Trial Act dictates the defendant has right to trial within 70 days from his or her initial appearance in U.S. District Court.
Return to: Stages of a Criminal Case