What Happens at an Arraignment?

If you are charged with committing a crime, there are lots of different hearings you might have to attend. Going to court in the movies might only take place once before your fate is decided, but in reality, depending on the nature of your crimes and the complaint against you, you might have multiple hearings starting with the arraignment.

What Does Arraignment Mean?

An arraignment means a formal reading of criminal charges in front of the defendant, or person charged with those criminal actions, so the defendant knows what crimes they are accused of and can respond to the accusations.

An arraignment is a very important and fundamental aspect of the American judicial system. Prior to its appearance in the U.S. Constitution, people could be charged with crimes without knowing they were charged, and sometimes they were arrested without being told what those crimes were. People went to jail or prison, some of them died there, never knowing what they were charged with because the government was derelict in some way. 

These types of actions still take place around the world in countries that have corrupt or broken judicial systems. However, the U.S. Constitution (fourth, fifth, sixth, and 14th amendments) guarantees that such civil liberties are not violated in America and that you have a speedy and fair trial, and that you know what the charges are, and you have a chance to refute them.

In most states, if you have a misdemeanor charge and your state requires an arraignment, your attorney can appear on your behalf without your being there. There are certain misdemeanor crimes, however, that require you as the accused to show up to the arraignment trial and these include domestic violence cases, violating a domestic violence court order, or DUI-related cases.

If you have a felony charge, you must show up to your arraignment. If you are already in custody, they sometimes allow you to show up using live video streaming. 

How Does an Arraignment Work?

An arraignment is usually the first type of court hearing in a criminal case. For defendants, this serves as the first court appearance, i.e., the first time you go before a judge. If you’re facing criminal charges, these proceedings are the first part of your pretrial process. When you go before the judge with your lawyers, the judge  will state the charges against you and then officially ask you how you wish to plead.

When the arraignment process begins, you will plead guilty or not guilty to each of the charges brought against you. Pleading guilty, for example, constitutes acceptance of your having committed the crimes in question. You can also plead no contest, which means you are not contesting the charges, but you are not admitting you committed the crimes. A plea of not guilty means you are refuting the charges and do not accept responsibility for them. 

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During this initial appearance, you will be told your rights again, even though you were read your rights at your arrest. Arraignments fall under constitutional rights, namely, the sixth amendment. If there is an unreasonable delay between the time you are arrested for a crime and your preliminary hearing takes place, it could constitute a violation of your right to a fair and fast trial. 

What happens at an arraignment?

If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will assign one to you, usually from the public defender’s office, or you can hire a criminal attorney. This attorney will help you understand the legalities of the procedure.  The actual steps are very similar no matter where you are, but the need for an arraignment and what transpires before and after the arraignment will vary based on where you live, which is why it might be best to use a court-appointed defense attorney or the lawyers you hire to give you precise information before your arraignment. 

If you have a defense attorney with you, they can advise defendants like you what will happen during the court proceedings and how to plead. Your attorney can:

  •  State out loud that you waive your right to hear the charges against you;
  •  Tell the judge that you now know your rights so the judge doesn’t have to do it again.

However, if you want to hear them again, some court official will read them to you as the accused. These rights include:

  • The right to an attorney either a court-appointed attorney or one you hire;
  • The right to confront any witnesses in the case against you and question them;
  • The right against self-incriminating actions or words (like your right to remain silent);
  • The right to be released on reasonable bail until your trial; 
  • The right to a fast trial (which starts with this arraignment). 

If you go to your arraignment and you hear the charges against you but you don’t have representation, you can ask that the judge effectively press pause on the arraignment while you consult with an attorney or get a court-appointed attorney, and then continue the arraignment in a reasonable amount of time thereafter.

Most people think there are only three pleas you can make at an arraignment, but there are technically six. When you hear the charges against you, you can:

  1. Plead guilty;
  2. Plead not guilty;
  3. Plead no contest;
  4. Plead a former judgment of acquittal or conviction (meaning you were already convicted or acquitted of these charges);
  5. Plead double jeopardy (the Constitution prevents you from being charged for the same crime twice);
  6. Plead not guilty because of insanity.

How Long Does an Arraignment Take?

The rules for these proceedings vary depending on your district court, jurisdiction, and state. For example, there are certain states that require arraignments only for felony cases and others that require them for misdemeanor cases too, even if you are only facing time in county jail. You might receive a bench warrant for a crime against you in your state, and that bench warrant will tell you the details of your arraignment. 

However, typically an arraignment is a very short procedure, only one day. It is a simple case when you hear the charges, and then the judge accepts your response. You might be in court all day waiting for your turn, but generally speaking it’s a very short process.

Can You Go to Jail at an Arraignment?

You do not go to jail at an arraignment. An arraignment is just the opportunity for you to hear what the charges against you are and for you to respond legally to those charges with a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. After the arraignment, you have a preliminary hearing where, as mentioned, the judge decides whether there’s enough evidence to even bother moving your case forward to a trial.

An arraignment is not actually a preliminary hearing, which is a special type of hearing used in criminal court. An official preliminary hearing is when a preliminary examination of any evidence against you is presented to the judge. The judge then decides whether the evidence is adequate enough to stand trial. 


Overall, an arraignment is a very critical component to the legal process and one designed to help you as the defendant better understand what charges are against you, when you might want to consult with an attorney, what rights you have, and how you wish to respond to the charges. No matter the response you have, guilty, not guilty or no contest, the arraignment is basically just the outline of the case against you and after this you will have a few preliminary trials before the actual court date to decide when the judge or a jury will decide your fate.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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