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The Reals of Justice: What Is an Arraignment? And, If I’m the Defendant, Do I Say Anything?

Ayanna Neal

“A criminal defendant’s initial appearance before a judicial officer, where he/she learns the charge against him/her and his/her liberty is subject to restriction, marks the start of adversary judicial proceedings that trigger attachment of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.” Rothgery v. Gillespie Co, 554 US 191, 213 (2008) The arraignment is the beginning of the criminal justice process. A person who has been charged with a crime appears before a magistrate or judge.  A person who has been charged with a crime is the defendant.  A defendant may appear at arraignment with or without an attorney.  The purpose of the arraignment is to inform the defendant of the nature of the crime(s) charged, the maximum penalty, his/her constitutional rights, right to have a bond set and the right to enter a plea.   A defendant arrested pursuant to a warrant must be taken to the court that is stated in the warrant.  At the arraignment for a felony or misdemeanor with a penalty more than 92 days jail, the court must make sure that the defendant’s fingerprints have been taken.  If the person hasn’t had their fingerprints taken the court can order to person to go to a police agency to do so or can order the person committed to the custody of the sheriff for the taking of the fingerprints.

When a defendant is arraigned for an offense that the district court has jurisdiction the defendant must be told: 1) the name of the offense; the maximum sentence; and the defendant’s right a) to the assistance of an attorney and to a trial; b) to an appointed attorney if applicable; and to a trial by jury.  When a defendant is arraigned on a felony charge or a misdemeanor charge that has a maximum penalty of more than one year, the court must advise the defendant of many additional rights, court hearings and dates, and information regarding pretrial release.

When an attorney is present for an arraignment, most attorneys enter their appearance and waive the formal reading of the charge(s).  The attorney asks the court to enter a plea of not guilty or stand mute on behalf of the defendant. The attorney will do most of the talking with the court and will direct the defendant when he/she is to speak. The court obtains contact information for the defendant and usually then addresses bond.  Most courts provide a copy of the complaint, the document that contains the charge(s), to the attorney.   If an attorney is not present, the court will usually enter a plea of not guilty or stand mute on the defendant’s behalf.

The magistrate or judge always advises the defendant of his/her basic constitutional rights.  Generally, a defendant is required to review the advice of rights form and then sign and date it and provide their address and phone number to the court.  If an attorney is present the attorney will go over the rights with the defendant and answer any questions prior to the defendant signing the advice of rights form. 

The only thing that a defendant should say during arraignment is to answer yes or no regarding whether they are able to read, write and understand the English language.  Answer yes or no as to if they understand their rights.  Answer yes or no as to if they reviewed and understand the advice of rights form.  Answer yes or no as to whether it is their signature on the advice of rights form and the correct contact information and that they signed the form on that date.  If applicable a defendant should answer questions from the court for the purpose of the court making a determination a bond but should not talk about the facts of the case or parties involved in the case.

If, however, a defendant is high on alcohol or drugs before an arraignment, they are unlikely to be able to fully comprehend what is going on.  An arraignment should not begin or should not continue if it is known that the defendant is in such condition.  The arraignment should be adjourned and rescheduled. 

The arraignment is not an opportunity for a defendant to tell his/her side of the story.  The defendant should not talk about the facts of the case(s).  The defendant should only answer the questions of the court.  Anything that a defendant says during an arraignment can be held against him/her.

*Disclaimer & legal information: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer, this newspaper or anyone else.  This article is for informational purposes only not for the purpose of providing medical or legal advice.

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