Arraignments in Criminal Cases

Criminal arraignments are a short hearing before a judge following arrest. The criminal arraignment formally begins the courtroom proceedings of a criminal case against a suspect. During the common criminal arraignment:

  • Suspects are formally charged of one or more crimes by prosecutors in written statement, which now labels the suspect as a defendant
  • Defendants are offered a chance to request court-appoint counsel
  • Defendants offer a response to the prosecutor's written statement, which normally consists of a not guilty plea
  • Judges establish a tentative schedule for future courtroom proceedings, including preliminary hearing, pretrial motions, and potentially the trial date itself
  • Judges establish bail amount, which may be revoked, raised, lowered, or decided as a release on one's own recognizance

The Timing of Criminal Arraignments

Since the birth of the United States, a longstanding right of arrest suspects has been that of a speedy arraignment. According to the Supreme Court, the case Mallory v. U.S, 1957 established that criminal arraignments must occur as soon as possible. For most cases, this means suspects currently incarcerated must be arraigned within forty-eight hours, unless the dates fall on a weekend or holiday. State laws do vary; however, many suspects that have been bailed out of jail already can expect their arraignment date to be at least two weeks later. Depending on your case, some attorneys will delay arraignments for longer as part of their own legal strategy, or they may elect to immediately seek arraignment and stymie the prosecutor's amount of time to prepare a better case.

The Process of a Typical Arraignment

Typically, arraignments are hectic situations in front of judges that will hear many cases in one day. As the defendant, you are responsible to make sure you understand all legal proceedings and motions your attorney may make, and if you wish, you may always request the judge to explain unclear legal codes and other proceedings to you. During an arraignment, no juries are present. In the courtroom, one judge, the prosecutor, the defense counsel, and the defendant are present along with potential dozens of other defendants, their counsel, and other members of the public. During the common criminal arraignment, any or all of the following may occur:

  • Defendant receives a written notice of charges filed against them by prosecutor
  • Defendant makes an initial plea regarding these charges, which is nearly always "not guilty"
  • Judges appoint counsel for an indigent defendant, or defendants may request to continue the arraignment pending obtaining private legal counsel
  • Arraignment judges will review a defendant's bail status, which can be changed pending defendant requests and prosecutor requests
  • A date is scheduled for hearing pretrial motions
  • Dates are scheduled for upcoming hearings not related to pretrial motions

In limited instances, a defendant's attorney may be allowed to appear at an arraignment without the defendant; however, attorneys typically cannot enter any plea during this period, unless a defendant lives outside the jurisdiction. For the record, however, a judge will have to ascertain that these are the defendant's wishes and that defendant fully understands the charges and potential punishments that face when having their attorney enter a given plea.

In some limited circumstances, typically only in those cases being represented by a private attorney, a defendant can successfully argue the charges are invalid and should be dismissed. The process of arraignment, which is the first time a defendant can request court-appoint counsel, is typically too early for a defendant to make any successful motion to dismiss, but it can occur and the dismissal is solely at the presiding judge's discretion.

Can I Represent Myself during a Criminal Arraignment?

It is possible for a defendant to represent themselves during their own arraignment. However, this will most likely detrimentally affect their case. From the initial arrest, law enforcement and prosecutors may have made critical technical mistakes dealing with your case, which a practicing criminal law attorney is trained to identify and use to dismiss your case. Additionally, many defendants remain incarcerated prior to their initial arraignment hearing, which means they have no time to review documents, speak with prosecutors, or prepare any kind of defense strategy. Likewise, most prosecutors will not even consult with defendants to initiate any kind of plea negotiation between arrest, initial arrest, or even following a continued arraignment. By accepting legal counsel at your arraignment, you can always dismiss this counsel later and go into future proceedings representing yourself. In addition, you may lose some critical rights by making a plea, which could lead to dismissing your case, if you decline counsel during your arraignment.

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