The arraignment, often considered the official start of a criminal case, provides the defendant with important information on the pending charges and next steps. Although the hearing itself might be very brief, several important things happen.
The prosecutor provides the criminal defendant with a copy of the charging document, often called the criminal complaint. The judge might appoint a public defender if the defendant is unrepresented. The defendant might enter a plea (guilty or not guilty) to the charges or ask to speak with counsel first. The court may also address unresolved bail issues and schedule upcoming hearings.
Every jurisdiction handles the timing of arraignment a little bit differently, but if the defendant is in custody (sitting in jail pretrial), usually the arraignment will take place within 48 hours of arrest. This time limit may be extended, if the arrest happens on a weekend and no judge is available until court opens on Monday. But rules usually require the arraignment to occur within 72 hours, so that defendants don't sit in jail indefinitely.
For out-of-custody defendants (those previously released on bond or never arrested in the first place), the arraignment might happen within a matter of weeks, depending on the court's calendar.
The timing can also depend on whether the defendant faces misdemeanor or felony charges. In many states, misdemeanor arraignments take place at the initial appearance. However, in felony matters, arraignments often occur after what's called the preliminary hearing (where the judge determines whether probable cause exists that a felony was committed and the defendant was probably the one who committed it).
While it all might happen rather quickly, the arraignment provides the following vital information.
Representation. Prior to a formal reading of the complaint, the judge may inquire as to the status of counsel for the defendant, if no attorney is present. For defendants who are indigent (cannot afford counsel), they will typically complete paperwork to determine whether they financially qualify for a public defender. Some defendants might wish to hire a lawyer but need additional time to find one and get a retainer together. In either case, the court will usually grant additional time for the defendant to get counsel.
Charges. The court will conduct a formal reading of the criminal complaint to inform the defendant of the pending criminal charges (unless the defendant waives the reading). The judge wants to make sure the defendant understands the charges, including any possible sentencing enhancers and the maximum penalties. After the reading, the judge will ask the defendant to enter a plea.
Plea. Typically, defendants have three plea options: guilty, not guilty, or no contest (accepting punishment without admitting guilt). Normally, at this stage in the process, the defendant will plead not guilty. If the defendant doesn't have an attorney, it's often in their best interest to request an adjournment of the hearing in order to retain counsel or see if they qualify for a public defender or another court-appointed attorney.
Bail or bond. After a plea is entered, the court may be willing to address bail or bond, especially if the defendant remains in custody. However, due to the packed nature of the court's calendar on a particular day, the judge might not be willing to take up the issue of bail at the arraignment and require defense counsel to file a motion for bond modification and set it for a hearing.
Schedule future hearings. The final step at arraignment is to schedule additional court hearings. The judge may set future court dates for a pretrial conference, motion hearing, status hearing, settlement conference, or trial.
Whether a lawyer will be present at the arraignment typically hinges on the defendant's ability or inability to afford one.
Private attorney. Defendants who intend on hiring a private attorney will be represented by counsel after they pay a retainer and sign a retainer agreement. The sooner this happens, the quicker the lawyer will be present at their hearings. If a defendant is able to hire an attorney prior to the arraignment, then the attorney will be present. Depending on local practice, some jurisdictions allow attorneys to appear without their clients at arraignments in misdemeanor cases.
Court-appointed attorney. Those defendants who are unable to afford private counsel but wish to be represented will have the opportunity to see if they qualify for a public defender. If they are able to complete the necessary financial paperwork through the public defender's office prior to the arraignment and qualify, then they will have an attorney present. Defendants in custody can try contacting the public defender's office to see if they can apply for, or meet with, a public defender in jail. Other times, defendants show up to the arraignment without representation and ask the court to appoint a public defender.
If you're facing criminal charges, contact a local criminal defense attorney right away. The sooner you're represented by counsel, the better. If you can't afford a private attorney, contact the public defender's office or the court to learn how to apply for court-appointed counsel.