What Happens At An Arraignment?

A defendant at his arraingment hearing in handcuffs standing in front of the judge.


“Not guilty, Your Honor.” These are the words typically spoken at an arraignment, and yet very few people actually know what an arraignment is. An arraignment, or arraignment hearing, is a very important stage in a criminal case. It is the defendant’s first court appearance where they are formally charged and a plea is entered. That means that the accused is told exactly what crime (or crimes) they are being charged with, and they get to tell the judge if they are guilty or not guilty of the charges. The judge also explains what constitutional rights they have, as a defendant, in criminal law, such as their right to counsel and a speedy trial.


What Happens At An Arraignment?

An arraignment hearing, or just arraignment for short, is often considered the first step in the criminal justice process for both misdemeanor cases and felony cases. Historically, the most important aspect of the arraignment hearing is for the accused, called the defendant, to be told what crimes they are being charged with. This is a formal reading by the judge in open court, and the defendant is asked whether they understand (regardless of whether they agree with) the charges. As important as this proceeding is, the reading of the charges is not the only thing that happens at arraignment.

As the arraignment is often the defendant’s first time in a courtroom, there are other important proceedings that need to happen at an arraignment hearing. First, it is important for the defendant to be read their constitutional rights. These rights include:


  • the right to counsel.
  • the right to a speedy trial.
  • the right to a jury trial.
  • the right against self-incrimination.
  • the right to call and confront witnesses.


If the defendant does not already have a criminal defense attorney at arraignment, or if they cannot afford one, the judge will appoint a public defender to take their case and represent them.

Defendants are required to appear in front of a judge for the arraignment hearing. If the defendant is released on their own recognizance, they must appear in person. If they are in jail, arraignment is also where the judge sets the bail bond. This is the amount that the defendant must pay in order to be released while their criminal charges are pending. Oftentimes, at arraignment, the judge will also have a bond hearing, which is where criminal defense lawyers argue for the bail amount to be reduced.

Finally, at the arraignment, the judge will ask the defendant to enter a plea. There are typically three types of pleas: guilty, not guilty, and nolo contendere (or no contest).


When Does An Arraignment Take Place?

An arraignment is a pre-trial court proceeding that happens very early in a case. The exact date of arraignment mainly depends on whether or not the defendant has been arrested.

In criminal law, under the Sixth Amendment, defendants cannot be held without knowing their charges for an unreasonable delay. That means arraignment within a reasonable time of the arrest. However, it varies from state to state on what is “unreasonable” and what is a “delay.” Most criminal courts require the defendant to at least be read the charges and their rights within the first 24-48 hours of arrest if they are being held in jail. In large jurisdictions, this often takes place over a live video feed between the judge on the bench in the courtroom and the defendants on camera still in jail.

If the defendant is released on bail or on their own recognizance, they will receive a summons to appear in court on their own. Failing to appear for arraignment will result in an arrest warrant being issued by the judge.

In some jurisdictions, defendants with felony charges may have their rights and charges read to them at an initial appearance and then have their formal arraignment after being bound over following a preliminary hearing or grand jury indictment.


Entering A Plea At Arraignment

A lawyer working at her laptop computer.

At an arraignment, after the formal reading of the charges and the defendant’s constitutional rights, the defendant will be asked by the judge to enter a plea based on those criminal charges. This means the defendant has to say whether they did or did not commit the crime. There are three types of pleas: guilty, not guilty, and nolo contendere, or ‘no contest.’


— Guilty

A guilty plea is an admission of guilt for the commission of the crime charged. The defendant will have a conviction on their criminal record following a guilty plea and will then be sentenced for the crime by the judge.

— Not Guilty

A not guilty plea is a denial of guilt for the commission of the crime charged. The defendant is exercising their constitutional rights, and the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt at trial.

— No Contest

A Nolo Contendere, or no contest plea, is not an admission of guilt but also not contesting the charge. Basically, this means the defendant is admitting that there is strong evidence against them and, in a way, is pleading guilty but without admitting fault. For a no-contest plea, they still get a criminal conviction, which will show up on their criminal record, and they still get sentenced.


A plea of guilty or a plea of no contest can end the case then and there. However, it is often the case that the defendant will enter a not-guilty plea at arraignment, only to later change to a guilty plea after plea negotiations have taken place.


Next Steps After The Arraignment

What happens after arraignment very much depends on the defendant’s plea. If the defendant pled guilty or no contest, they would then be sentenced, usually at a later date at the sentencing hearing. If the defendant is not already in custody, they may be taken into custody or processed for booking.

Most defendants plead not guilty at arraignment. Many things can happen following a not guilty plea. If the defendant is in custody, their criminal defense attorney may schedule a bond reduction hearing at the same time or right after the arraignment to argue the bail bond amount. If the bond is reduced, bail may be posted, and the defendant will be released from jail after the arraignment.

Additionally, the judge will schedule other hearings to take place after the arraignment. For instance, the preliminary hearing is often scheduled at arraignment (if it hasn’t already happened) for a later date. Pre-trial conferences are also scheduled where the prosecutor and defense lawyers can enter into plea bargaining and argue pre-trial motions. Finally, the bench or jury trial is eventually scheduled after the arraignment hearing.


The Bottom Line

The arraignment process is a very important part of a criminal case. It is the criminal defendant’s initial appearance in the courtroom before the judge, where they are formally read the charges against them. They are also informed of their other constitutional rights, such as the right to representation by a criminal defense attorney and the right to a speedy trial. Defendants who are in jail and cannot afford their bail can also request a bail reduction from the judge at arraignment. Finally, they are asked to enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest in order to determine how their case will move forward.


Frequently Asked Questions


What is the purpose of an arraignment?

The purpose of an arraignment is to inform the defendant of their constitutional rights and the charges against them in a criminal case. Defendants are also sometimes able to argue the set bail amount at arraignment if they were arrested and put in jail after booking. Finally, after being told their charges, defendants enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest to those charges at the arraignment hearing.


What is the difference between an arraignment and a preliminary hearing?

In district courts, arraignment hearings and preliminary hearings are two different things. An arraignment is the ‘first-time appearance’, and the preliminary hearing, or prelim, is a probable cause hearing. The arraignment is less like a hearing and more like a conversation with the judge. The prelim is like a mini-trial where the state and defense attorneys call witnesses and present evidence, and the judge decides if there is enough evidence and probable cause for the case to move forward.


What does the judge do at an arraignment?

As the main purpose of an arraignment is to inform the defendant, it is the judge’s job to do just that. First, the judge formally reads the defendant’s criminal charges and ensures they understand them. Then the judge reads the defendant their constitutional rights in a criminal case, such as their right to a speedy trial and their right to counsel. Then the judge asks the defendant to enter a plea. In some jurisdictions, the judge can also set the defendant’s bail and schedule later court appearances, such as the preliminary hearing, pre-trial conferences, and the trial date.


Can I waive my appearance at arraignment?

In the majority of district courts, defendants cannot waive their appearance at the arraignment. This means they have to physically appear on the court date (or appear on the video feed in some jurisdictions if they are in jail). In some states, the defendant can submit a waiver of appearance at arraignment, but only for minor misdemeanor charges. If you are out on bond for felony charges, you must appear for the arraignment. Failure to do so will result in a warrant being issued for your arrest.


What are the different charges a defendant may be arraigned on?

Defendants are arraigned on all felony charges, which include serious crimes like burglary, domestic violence, assault and battery, and so on. For misdemeanors such as a DUI or petty theft, defendants are also formally read their charges and must enter a plea. However, in some jurisdictions, this is an initial appearance, not an arraignment, even though the procedure is exactly the same.