First time federal criminal defendants often hear the word “Arraignment” and get a little scared because the word itself is formal and not used outside of criminal law. This leads defendants to expect that something big will happen at their arraignment hearings. However, after the hearings, it is common for defendants to turn to their attorneys and say, “That’s it?” What actually happens at an arraignment hearing normally does not meet the expectations that defendants have built up in their minds. The arraignment process, however, is extremely important because it sets the stage for everything that happens later in the federal criminal law process.
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GotTrouble.com Criminal Law Tips – What is the arraignment & bail process?
First Hearing With Counsel
Before the arraignment, a federal criminal case has already gone through at least these phases:
- Grand Jury Investigation
- Initial Appearance
A criminal defendant might have an attorney present at all of those stages and is advised to do so, but it is not necessary. In reality, most federal criminal defendants do not have their attorneys present for any formal part of the criminal process until the arraignment. The presence of defense counsel changes things slightly. It allows defendants to get immediate legal advice.
Reading of the Charges
Prior to the arraignment, the defendant should already be aware of what the charges against him or her are. The defendant in some cases has even seen the formal charges in writing and had a chance to review them. A magistrate judge at an initial appearance hearing should have told the defendant what the charges are. What makes an arraignment different is that the charges are read out loud to the defendant. This is a way to make sure that the defendant has in fact heard and understood what the charges are. However, the federal criminal defendant can waive this formal reading and as a practical matter most do because there is little reason to have the charges read aloud when the defendant already knows and understands them.
Entering a Plea
After the charges are read or their reading has been waived, the magistrate judge will ask the defendant how he or she pleads to the charges. The defendant can either plead “Guilty” or “Not guilty.” Almost all federal defendants plead not guilty at this stage of the process unless a plea bargain has already been arranged with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Pleading not guilty at the arraignment can not be used against the defendant later and a plea of guilty can be entered later if necessary.
Entering a plea is the point in the federal process where defendants will be glad to have an attorney present. If a plea bargain is on the table, only an experienced criminal defense attorney can advise whether or not a defendant should enter a plea of guilty and take the plea bargain deal at the arraignment.
Setting a Schedule
After the defendant enters a formal plea to the charges, the rest of the arraignment hearing is normally nothing more than setting a schedule for what will happen next. Things that are often scheduled include:
- A discovery timetable,
- A hearing for pre-trial motions, and
- A trial date
Most of the time, the defendant will not be too actively involved in setting the schedule. This part of the hearing is more for the attorneys and judge to make sure that they get everything on their calendars. However, one thing that first time defendants should be aware of is that they have a right to a speedy trial. This means that you have a right to a trial within 70 days of your initial appearance. The defendant should talk to his or her attorney about whether to demand a speedy trial or not. It does not do a defendant any good to demand a speedy trial if the defense attorney cannot be ready for the trial that quickly. However, if the prosecution needs extra time to prepare, the defendant might be advised to insist on a speedy trial.
Although an arraignment often sounds scary, it is a small step in the overall federal criminal process. It is important because it sets the stage for everything that will happen next. However, defendants do not need to be afraid of the arraignment as they will have an attorney present to assist them and the arraignment is not the end of the criminal process.