What Is Arraignment?
Arraignment is the term for a formal court proceeding during which a defendant is notified of the charges against her and asked to enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty,” or, in some circumstances “nolo contendere” or “not guilty by reason of insanity.” For example, if you were stopped and issued a traffic ticket, or citation, the arraignment date and time are usually written on the face of the ticket, like this:
Failure to appear at arraignment could result in the judge issuing a bench warrant for your arrest, the suspension of your driver’s license, and forfeiture of your bond, if any.
Who sets the time of arraignment?
The judge, or the judge’s designee, shall set the time of arraignment unless arraignment is waived either by the defendant or by operation of law. Notice of the date, time, and place of arraignment shall be delivered to the clerk of the court and sent to attorneys of record, defendants, and bondsmen. Uniform Court Rule 30.1
Upon the entry of a plea of guilty at arraignment, the judge will impose sentence, or punishment.
Upon the entry of a “not guilty” plea at arraignment, you will have the opportunity to select a bench trial or a jury trial. A bench trial is a trial before one judge, who will decide whether the prosecutor has proven each and every element of the crime(s) beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury trial is a trial before a number of citizens of the county (or district) where the crime allegedly occurred. The 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in many criminal cases, but there is no constitutional right to a bench trial in any case.
Arraignment can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience. Often, the judge and prosecuting attorney will use words and phrases that are unfamiliar to non-lawyers, and the courtroom procedures may be difficult to follow and understand. Without a lawyer to explain the process, the law, the role of each participant, the consequences of each decision that must be made, and other important matters, a criminal defendant is left to fend for herself and “do the best she can do.”
While arraignment is an important proceeding, it is but one step on a long, arduous journey through the criminal justice system.