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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021
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Arraignment is the first step in the criminal process. Even though the arraignment process is fairly quick and simple, it can still be a critical step for a defendant. Not only is it a defendant’s first introduction to his rights in the criminal justice system, but it can also serve as a starting point for invoking valuable rights and time lines.
Arraignment procedures vary by state and jurisdiction. Magistrates or Justices of the Peace perform arraignments in smaller jurisdictions. A defendant will be brought before the magistrate in a small courtroom or meeting room. The magistrate will tell the defendant the nature of the charges against them. Some states only require a defendant to be told what the title of the charge is, like possession of a controlled substance or assault with a deadly weapon. Other states require that an actual indictment or complaint be read to the defendant that gives more details regarding the allegation. Instead of just stating the charge, a complaint would set out other factors like who was the victim, when the crime happened, and how it occurred.
In addition to advising a defendant of the actual charges, the second purpose of arraignment is to advise a defendant of his constitutional (and sometimes state constitutional) rights. These are rights similar to what people see on television in the form of Miranda warnings. They include the right to counsel and the right to remain silent. Some jurisdictions will ask defendants how they would like to plea at arraignment, while others will wait until an actual court date to require a defendant to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If a defendant pleads not guilty during arraignment, he can still change his plea at a later date.
After a defendant is advised of his rights, he receives some type of documentation confirming the arraignment. This document is not an admission, but rather an acknowledgment that the defendant was advised of his rights and the nature of the charges. Many jurisdictions will also set bail or tell a defendant of the amount of bail at arraignment. If a defendant requests the appointment of counsel and qualifies for the appointment of counsel, then the magistrate can appoint an attorney. These are matters that are incident to, but not the focus of arraignment. Some jurisdictions separate these items into other hearings, like a bail hearing or preliminary hearing.
A defendant is entitled to be told the allegations against him. However, the Constitution does not set out a formal procedure that must be followed by every state. Many jurisdictions have the resources to have every defendant personally arraigned by a magistrate. However, other jurisdictions, because of volume or funding issues, utilize other arraignment methods. In Ohio, for example, some jurisdictions arraign defendants en masse, meaning in a group, instead of individually. Instead of live and in person, some magistrates arraign defendants through teleconferencing systems. As long as a defendant knows the charges and his rights, the Supreme Court will not quash an arraignment.
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The Importance of Arraignment
Because the process of arraignment is so basic and quick, many people assume that it has a minimal impact on a defendant’s case. Defendants frequently waive arraignment without truly understanding the benefits of at least listening to the arraignment. A state’s rules of procedure will determine the impact of arraignment on a defendant’s case. In some jurisdictions, arraignment is the beginning of the prosecution. In Oregon, for example, it marks the beginning of the prosecution’s effort for the purpose of the statute of limitations. Failure to begin prosecution in a timely manner can cause the statute of limitations to run on a defendant’s case—thereby resulting in an acquittal. This is a state specific rule. Other states, like Texas, deem the filing of a complaint with a county court or the return of an indictment by a grand jury as the beginning of the prosecution for limitations purposes.
Another impact is the invocation of rights. A defendant can tell the magistrate that they wish to have an attorney appointed at arraignment. The sooner a defendant can secure counsel, the sooner they can begin developing a defensive or mitigating strategy. A defendant should remember, however, that the right to an attorney for trial and the right to have an attorney present during an interrogation are two different rights. Many defendants invoke their right to counsel during arraignment, only to be approached by an investigator after arraignment asking questions. Even though the defendant invoked the right to an attorney for trial at arraignment, the courts generally require a defendant to invoke the right to counsel during a subsequent interview—it is not a carry-over right.
Remedy for Violations of Arraignment Procedures
The remedies for arraignment problems will depend on the nature of the issue or violation. If a magistrate forgets to read a defendant his last set of rights, the remedy is to simply re-arraign the defendant. Most states will not dismiss a criminal prosecution for a bad arraignment. However, in states where arraignment begins the prosecution, a failure to timely arraign can result in a dismissal of charges. If a defendant invoked the right to counsel at arraignment and then re-urged the right to counsel when interviewed by a detective, then the remedy would be to have the statement thrown out as evidence.
Probably the most important function of arraignment is the invocation of a defendant’s right to an attorney. A criminal attorney can help a defendant understand the charges, preserve evidence, and develop defensive strategies. The sooner a defendant understands the charges and the rights set out during arraignment, the sooner a defendant can reach a resolution.