An arraignment hearing is the formal reading of charges to a person accused of a criminal offense. In most cases, it also gives a defendant a chance to enter a plea to the charges. Depending on the plea, the hearing will usually result in a sentence for the crime committed, or the setting of dates for a criminal trial. In some cases, it also involves the setting of bail conditions.
An arraignment hearing is a critical part of the justice process in many legal systems, including those in the US, United Kingdom, and Australia, Failure to attend an arraignment can result in fines, additional charges, and the denial of bail. If a person is arrested and held in jail, he or she usually has the right to a swift arraignment hearing.
In many legal systems, a defendant has the right to know the exact charges against him or her. At an arraignment hearing, the judge or court clerk reads out these charges to the defendant and asks if he or she understands them. Generally, the defendant will know the charges ahead of time, but the hearing serves as a formal record of the charges. A defendant may choose to have a lawyer with him or her for this reading; a prosecutor is usually in attendance as well.
In most criminal cases, the defendant must make a plea to the charges read at an arraignment. One major exception to this practice is in the United States Federal Court, where there are separate hearings for the indictment and for a defendant's plea. At a typical arraignment, however, the pleas usually accepted are “guilty,” “no contest,” or “not guilty.” Pleading “no contest” typically has the same legal effect as pleading guilty, though the term actually means that the defendant does not admit guilt, but does not want to fight the charges.
The type of crime and the plea entered will greatly affect the next steps in an arraignment hearing. If a defendant pleads guilty or no contest and the crime is a minor offense, such as a traffic offense, the judge may enter a sentence automatically. If the crime is more serious, such as a felony assault or murder, the judge will set a date for an evidentiary hearing to determine the appropriate sentence. If a person pleads not guilty, the judge will set a date for a formal trial to determine guilt or innocence.
One other issue that may be added to an arraignment hearing involves the conditions for release until a trial can be held. Depending on the plea and the crime, the judge may allow the defendant to be free on bail until the trial date arrives. If the defendant is a repeat offender, has a history of violent crime, or is believed to present a significant flight risk, the judge may choose to deny bail and hold him or her in custody until the trial.