To most people, the language surrounding the law can be confusing and often impenetrable. Perhaps explaining why this terminology is called “legalese,” can sometimes require translation for those not overly familiar with the language of the law.
The word “arraignment” is a perfect example of this, not only because the term itself requires explanation but also because the concept of arraignment in itself can be somewhat confusing. Let’s begin simply, by explaining the definition of an arraignment, then explaining further how it fits into the overall scope of the law and what you can expect before, during and after over the course of a trial.
This differs from an indictment, in which a grand jury introduces formal charges or accusations, and is generally reserved for more serious crimes.
What is an Arraignment?
An arraignment is simply a hearing that occurs after an arrest, usually within the first 24-28 hours. This can be extended by an additional day if an arrest warrant exists, or within a few weeks if there is no arrest.
During this hearing, the prosecution will formally introduce the charges that have been filed and the defendant will respond with a plea – generally either “guilty,” “not guilty” or “nolo contendere,” which itself is a legal term essentially meaning “no-contest.” In certain cases, bail may be addressed during the arraignment as well, with the judge determining whether to release the defendant – on bail or their own recognizance – or deny bail.
This makes an arraignment more of a preamble to an actual trial, which is where evidence and eyewitnesses are presented, the prosecution and defense make their case, and a verdict is issued. For those facing their first experience in court, it may be a confusing time, which means having experienced legal counsel at your side is critical.
Entering a Plea
Following the prosecution’s reading of the charges, you will be asked how you plead.
If you plan on pleading guilty, you should be aware of the rights you’re surrendering, including the right to remain silent, the right to a trial, the right to argue the allegations against you and in some cases the right to appeal the verdict. If you do plead guilty, the judge can move immediately to sentencing or set a hearing later, as there is no longer the need for a trial. You can be remanded directly to prison.
If you plead not guilty, you retain your constitutional rights to a fair trial, plus you buy time for your attorney to plan a defense, examine the evidence at hand and possibly discover new evidence that is favorable to your case. Perhaps more important than giving your legal team to prepare their case, this window also allows you to emotionally prepare yourself for the trial ahead.
If you enter a plea of nolo contendere, or no-contest, you are not challenging the charges against you, but you are also not admitting guilt. It’s a fine legal distinction that can be advantageous in certain cases, for example in traffic cases where a no-contest plea could help avoid a suspension or loss of points on your license. It is important to note that this plea cannot be used for all crimes.
The course of action that most defendants will take is to plead not guilty and prove their case in a trial. That said, an attorney can guide you through this process and outline the advantages and disadvantages of each plea. They may also be able to negotiate with the court to allow for a written plea of not guilty, saving you from having to appear at the arraignment itself.
In certain situations, an attorney can convince the prosecution that insufficient evidence even exists to move forward with a case. You heard right, the sooner an attorney jumps into a case, the better the outcome. Oftentimes, the prosecutor will not have enough supporting evidence to pursue a criminal charge and they often have to dismiss the charges when a skilled defense attorney jumps in early and disproves the allegations.
If you do not secure legal representation prior to the arraignment, you will be required to attend. At the arraignment, you may be assigned representation from a public defender if you meet the financial criteria. If you don’t meet the criteria, the judge may still opt to appoint one on your behalf.
What Happens if I Miss the Arraignment?
There are several consequences to missing an arraignment, including:
Issues of a Warrant: Once the judge determines that you have failed to appear, they can issue a bench warrant calling for your immediate arrest. This arrest can happen at any time or place, and authorizes law enforcement to bring you to court in custody.
Bail or Bond Implications: If you had posted bail prior to the arraignment, the amount of bail may be increased or revoked entirely. If bail is revoked, you will be required to stay in custody through the duration of your trial. Likewise, if you posted a bond, that could be forfeited.
Additional Charges and Penalties: Beyond whatever charges first led to the arraignment, you can be additionally handed Failure to Appear or even Contempt of Court charges, leading to harsher penalties upon conviction. In traffic-related cases, the court may also request that the Department of Driver Services suspend your driver’s license outright.
The Prosecution Gets an Edge: Should your case go to trial, you can expect the prosecution to use your missed appearance to their advantage, insinuating that you might be a flight risk or can’t be trusted. Even if they don’t press it, a missed appearance can discredit your defense in the eyes of the court.
After the Arraignment
What happens following the conclusion of the arraignment will depend on what plea you enter. If you choose to plead No-Contest or Guilty, the case will move on to a sentencing hearing or you could be sent immediately to jail. If you plead Not Guilty, pretrial motions and conferences will then begin, leading up to a potential trial. The specifics of what comes next will be given to you in the form of a document outlining any upcoming hearings.
Ultimately, the information presented here covers the general outlines of what an arraignment is and what you can expect. Your best bet in any legal situation would be to involve an experienced attorney as quickly as possible and heed their legal expertise.
The Busbee Law Group has developed a proven track record for helping clients in your situation, building our reputation with each case by more thoroughly researching every aspect of your case and investigating the specifics with a trained eye for detail. Because we keep our caseloads intentionally low, we can offer every client the full benefit of our thorough preparation and relentless pursuit of justice. Your freedom is all that matters, and reclaiming that freedom is only possible through a willingness to create a truly robust defense.
Being charged with a crime does not mean you are guilty. It simply means that you need the insight of a skilled attorney to prove your innocence. Get started by filling out your contact information below and scheduling a complimentary, no-obligation consultation.