What is an Arraignment Hearing?

What is an Arraignment Hearing?
As a part of a fair justice system, arraignment hearings play a very important role. In this hearing, the accused person is formally read the charges set against him/her. Let us now look at the various procedures that take place, and the importance of this hearing in a criminal trial.
OpinionFront Staff
Preliminary vs. Arraignment Hearing
While an arraignment hearing determines whether probable cause exists to charge the defendant of the crime, a preliminary hearing determines whether enough evidence exists for a defendant to stand trial.
An arraignment hearing can be defined as 'A court hearing in a criminal case during which the charges are read out to the named accused, and he or she (unless insane or mute) must plead guilty or not guilty.' This hearing is mostly the first time that the defendant appears in front of a judge on criminal charges, after which he is read out the charges and is asked to enter a plea to the charges. It is also the first time the defendant meets the lawyer who will prosecute the case against him. During this hearing, it is also decided whether the defendant can be released on bail, pending trial.
It is important to note that arraignments are required in felony and misdemeanor cases, or basically any case in which the penalty can result in incarceration. If the accused has been kept in jail after an arrest, he must be brought before a judge for an arraignment hearing within 48 hours of being arrested, so that it can be determined whether the arrest was justified by a probable cause. Now that we have understood the meaning of an arraignment hearing, we shall study about what its actual purpose is.
Purpose of an Arraignment Hearing
An arraignment has to take place, as the defendant gets a hearing without much delay. Unreasonable delays are against the defendant's federal constitutional Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. If the arraignment is not scheduled for an unreasonably long period of time, despite an indictment being issued by the prosecutor's office, the defendant's lawyer can request the case to be dismissed. The judge then reviews the details to determine whether the delay is reasonable, and decide whether the case is to be dismissed.
What Happens at an Arraignment Hearing?
Formal Advisement of the Defendant's Rights: During an arraignment hearing, the court has to advise the defendant of their constitutional rights, such as their right to legal counsel, the right for a fair trial, and the right against self-incrimination. The defendant also has the right to have legal representation during the hearing. If such a desire is expressed, the court cannot hold an arraignment hearing without giving an opportunity for legal counsel, or the provision of a public defender.

Advisement About the Charges: After the rights are explained to the defendant, the court has to now inform the defendant about the charges that have been leveled against him. The judge may also have to read out the criminal complaint, indictment, and other informational documents related to the charges; for e.g. evidence related to the case. The defendant will also have to receive a copy of the charging document.

Entering of a Plea: After the defendant is advised about the charges, the judge will now ask the defendant how he pleads to the charges. The defendant can either plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

If the crime is a minor one, and the defendant pleads guilty, the judge can sentence the defendant at the arraignment itself. The defendant's lawyer and the prosecutor negotiate the guilty plea to set the sentence at this time. However, if the crime is a serious one, the judge will ask for a pre-sentence report, and set a separate date for the sentencing hearing.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, it means that he is making the state―represented by the prosecutor―prove the charges laid against him. Most defense attorneys recommend their clients to plead not guilty, as it forces the prosecutor to gather evidence against the defendant, and gives the defense attorney a chance to study the evidence and investigate the case to prove that the defendant did not commit the crime.

The defendant usually chooses the plea option of no contest when he acknowledges that the prosecutor has enough evidence to prove that he has committed the crime, but does not admit that he did it. When such a plea is entered, the court proceeds in the same way as a guilty plea. The difference between a guilty and no contest plea is that, a no contest plea is accepted by the court at the discretion of the judge, and it cannot be used in cases of death penalties. It is used by defendants, as this plea cannot be used by the prosecution to prove the person's guilt. It is also used to avoid going on a criminal trial in cases where the outcome is not certain, and where the defendant does not want details of the case to become public.

Setting Conditions for Release: The court also decides whether to release the defendant, pending the completion of the case. This decision is primarily based on the overall relation of the defendant with the community, and also if the community is put at risk by such a release, or if the defendant is likely to flee after being released. If the defendant has a small or no criminal record, and if the crime is a minor one, the court will release the accused on his word that he will attend all trials and proceedings on the case. In some cases, certain conditions are applied to a release. For example, the defendant may be asked to regularly report to a probation or supervising officer, keep away from witnesses, drugs, alcohol, and committing other crimes, etc. If these conditions are broken, the court can rescind the release order.

The court may also release the defendant on a monetary bond/bail. In such cases, the defendant has to give a refundable amount of money to the court as an assurance that he will attend the trial. If the defendant finds that he does not have the resources to pay the bond, a bail bondsman pays the bond to the court in return for a small amount of non-refundable money, usually 10% of the original bond amount, along with collateral, which can be claimed by the bondsman in case the defendant does not appear for the trial.
Arraignment Waivers
If the defendant has an attorney, he can also choose to waive off the arraignment hearing. In such cases, the defense attorney will communicate with the prosecutor and the court with a written application for the waiver. The attorney may also submit a document for the conditions of release along with the waiver application, or the court may allow the defendant to waive the arraignment, and set a separate date for the hearing on the conditions of release.
In all cases, it is recommended that the defendant contacts an attorney as soon as he receives the notice of arraignment, who will help throughout the process and discuss the various options available, reducing stress, and setting up favorable conditions of release.
Note: How courts exactly conduct arraignments and what occurs varies with each state's laws and its state constitution.