What is Criminal Arraignment? Plus Common Questions

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If you have been charged with a federal crime, you will most certainly have questions about the process, including the arraignment. Below are the most frequent questions we receive about the felony criminal arraignment hearing at the federal level:

What is the arraignment hearing?

A felony arraignment hearing is a former court proceeding and a very important part of the criminal procedure at the federal, state and local levels. A felony arraignment is one of the early steps in the process of being charged formally with a crime.

The purpose of the criminal arraignment is to make sure that you are aware of your constitutional rights, especially the 6th Amendment. This is the one that requires that you are informed in a timely manner of the crime that you have been accused of. During the arraignment, you will usually be represented by your attorney and you will enter a plea.

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

The preliminary hearing is similar to a grand jury proceeding. There, the judge will determine if there is enough evidence for you to stand trial for a crime. As the defendant, you do not have to be present at the preliminary hearing.

On the other hand, at an arraignment, it already has been established that there is probable cause to charge you with a crime. Also, you generally need to be present at the felony arraignment hearing. This is a requirement at the federal level, although some states may relax the requirement.

When does the arraignment occur?

It must occur within a reasonable time after you are arrested, as the constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. If there is a delay of months after you are arrested, your attorney could ask that the case be dismissed.

When do I get an attorney?

During the arraignment, when you are informed of your rights under the constitution, you will be informed of your right to counsel. If you do not have an attorney at this point, the court will advise you at the arraignment that you have the right to have an attorney appointed to you if you cannot afford one.

When do I enter a plea?

You will be first informed of the charges against you and also the details and substance of the charges. Usually, you will be given a written copy of the indictment and all details of the charges against you. After you have been apprised of all the charges against you, you are asked how you will lead. You will plead guilty, not guilty or no contest.

If you have not spoken yet to an attorney, you should nearly always plead not guilty.

When should I enter a guilty plea?

This is an individual decision that depends upon the facts of your case. In federal criminal court, in many cases, clients will plead guilty because the government may offer a reduction in your prison sentence. The government may want you to cooperate so that they can use you to get other alleged criminals. In exchange, the federal prosecutor may offer to reduce your sentence more.

You should know that if you plead not guilty, there is no guarantee that there will be any plea bargaining. The case may go to trial and you could lose. Then you go to prison for a long time.

When will I learn about the maximum penalties for the crime?

You and your attorney will usually go over the charges in the charging document and also the maximum penalties if you are convicted. This will generally occur before you go to the arraignment hearing.

Can I get bail?

Bail will be set at the arraignment. During this hearing, you will be able to ask for bail or to be set free. The court will consider several factors when deciding if you should get bail or if you should be released before the trial. If you have strong ties to the area and a family, you may get a lower amount of bail.

However, if it is thought that you could flee the area, or if the crime is violent in nature, you may be kept in custody.

There could be other conditions for you to post bail, such as not contacting witnesses, not using drugs or alcohol and not associating with any other defendants. If you violate any of these terms, you could be sent to jail until the trial takes place.

When will my trial be set?

At the federal level, things tend to move quickly. In many cases, your trial date could be approximately  30 days after the arraignment. However, there are exceptions. You and your attorney may file a written waiver of the right to a speedy trial so you have more time to prepare your defense.