A criminal proceeding at which the defendant is officially called before a court of competent jurisdiction, informed of the offense charged in the complaint, information, indictment, or other charging document, and asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or as otherwise permitted by law. Depending on the jurisdiction, arraignment may also be the proceeding at which the court determines whether to set bail for the defendant or release the defendant on his or her own recognizance.
Although the initial appearance of the arrested person before a magistrate is sometimes referred to as an arraignment, it is not a true arraignment, which only comes after the defendant has been both arrested and formally charged. In all but extremely rare cases, arraignment also takes place before any suppression hearings and the trial itself. The interests at issue in an arraignment are the defendant's right to know of the charges against him or her and the defendant's right to have adequate information from which to prepare a defense. The state also has an interest in having the defendant make a plea so it can prepare accordingly.
The SIXTH AMENDMENT to U.S. Constitution guarantees that defendants shall "be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against them." But the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee defendants the right to be informed of the charged offense at an arraignment. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that arraignments are a necessary pre-condition to trial under federal law, the Court has also ruled that failure to arraign a defendant is not a reversible error where the failure is inadvertent, the defendant knows that he is the accused, the defendant is apprised of the charged offense, the defendant is able to assist in preparing a defense, and the defendant is not otherwise prejudiced by the lack of an arraignment. Thus the importance and necessity of being arraigned before trial varies from case to case and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The law governing arraignment procedures is spelled out by statutes and court rules at both the state and federal levels.
The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provide that during the arraignment federal courts must read the indictment or information to the defendant or state the substance of the charge to the defendant and ask him or her to enter a plea thereto. FR Crim P, Rule 10. The defendant must also be given a copy of the indictment or information before he or she is called upon to plead. Generally speaking, the federal rules require defendants to be present at the arraignment. However, in prosecutions for offenses punishable by fine or imprisonment for not more than one year, the court, with the written consent of the defendant, may permit arraignment in the defendant's absence.
The court rules in some states only require that arraignments be held for felony-level charges, but not for misdemeanor-level offenses. Other states require arraignments for felonies, gross misdemeanors, and misdemeanors punishable by incarceration or a fine greater than a certain amount. In addition to requiring that defendants be called before the court, informed of the charged offense, and asked to enter a plea, several state jurisdictions also require that defendants be informed of certain constitutional rights during arraignment, including the right to trial by jury, the right to assistance of counsel, and the PRIVILEGE AGAINST SELF-INCRIMINATION. If the law of a particular state makes the arraignment a critical stage of the prosecution, such as when the court rules require the defendant to raise any defenses to the charged offense at the arraignment or waive them, then the defendant must be afforded the RIGHT TO COUNSEL under the Sixth Amendment. Hamilton v. Alabama, 368 U.S. 52, 82 S.Ct. 157, 7 L.Ed.2d 114 (U.S.Ala. 1961).
Defendants in both state and federal courts must be arraigned in a timely fashion. Ordinarily the accused must be arraigned before the impaneling of the jury or at least before the introduction of evidence. If an unreasonable delay occurs between the time a defendant is arrested and charged with an offense and the time the defendant is arraigned, state and federal courts will dismiss the criminal proceedings as having violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
Many jurisdictions require that defendants be arraigned within seventy-two hours of arrest. As a result, defendants arrested over the weekend are usually arraigned on Mondays, which can make for a packed courtroom. To speed up the arraignment process on busy days, defendants are often arraigned in groups, which is constitutionally permissible so long as each person being arraigned identifies himself or herself to the court and the court advises all defendants in attendance that the remarks of the court apply to each person individually. Courts conducting group arraignments must also ascertain on the record that each defendant was present throughout the entire course of the arraignment, heard the remarks, and understood them.
The right to be arraigned may ordinarily be waived, even when the charge is for a felony-level offense, provided the accused knows the nature of the charge offense and has a full opportunity to present a defense. The power to waive an arraignment must usually be exercised by the accused in person. Where the right of the accused to waive an arraignment is recognized, an express waiver in open court is sufficient. An arraignment may also be waived in a less formal manner, such as by the voluntary entry of a plea, by failing to call the court's attention to a defect in the proceedings at the proper time, by announcing readiness for trial, by going to trial without objection, or by filing motions and obtaining rulings on issues of law in the case.