An arraignment is usually the first court hearing in a California criminal case. Five key things to know are:
- The arraignment is where you are formally charged with a crime. The judge can also address issues of bail and restraining orders.
- You will likely plea “not guilty” at your arraignment. You can always change your plea later on in the case.
- With some exceptions, you can usually hire an attorney to go in your place to your misdemeanor arraignment. In most felony cases, though, you need to appear personally at the arraignment.
- After the arraignment ends, the court will proceed to the pretrial process, which includes plea negotiations and trial preparation. In felony cases, the court will likely schedule a preliminary hearing.
- If you forget to show up to your arraignment, the court can issue a bench warrant for your arrest.
In the article below, our California criminal defense lawyers will explain the arraignment process, your rights, and what you may expect to happen.
- What is an arraignment?
- What happens at an arraignment hearing?
- When does a felony arraignment take place?
- When is a misdemeanor arraignment?
- What are my rights at the hearing?
- Can my lawyer appear on my behalf so I do not have to show up?
- What happens if I fail to appear?
- What should I bring to the hearing?
- When do I enter a plea?
- Will the judge consider reducing my bail at the arraignment?
- Can Charges be dropped at an arraignment?
- Can a judge drop a criminal charge at an arraignment hearing?
- What plea can a defendant enter if charges are not dropped during an arraignment?
- What if I was unlawfully arrested?
- What happens post arraignment?
- With respect to other motions
- Contact us
What is an arraignment?
An arraignment hearing is the first formal court proceeding in the California criminal law process after your arrest and the filing of criminal charges against you. Your arraignment is where:
- the court will formally charge you with a crime and advise you of your Constitutional rights,
- you will find out the specific criminal charges that have been filed against you
- your attorney will argue against any pending orders that may apply to your case, such as a restraining order, and
- you will enter an initial plea.
The arraignment hearing takes place once the prosecuting agency (typically the local District Attorney’s office or the local City Attorney’s office) has filed formal charges. When the arraignment takes place is strictly regulated according to California law.
An arraignment is typically the first court proceeding in a criminal case. At the arraignment hearing, defendants are advised of the charges that have been filed as well as their legal and constitutional rights. Afterward, they are given an opportunity to enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest.
If an attorney is in court on behalf of the client, he or she can:
- Waive (give up) the right to have the charges read out loud.
- Tell the judge that the client has already been advised of his or her rights.
At an arraignment, some of the important rights that an accused must be advised of are:
- the right to an attorney,
- the right to confront and question witnesses,
- the right against self-incrimination,
- the right to be released on reasonable bail, and
- the right to a speedy trial.
There are six different pleas that can be made at an arraignment. They are:
- not guilty,
- no contest (nolo contendere),
- former judgment of conviction or acquittal,
- double jeopardy,
- not guilty by reason of insanity.
Upon request, the judge must continue the arraignment for a reasonable amount of time. For example, a person may want to consult with an attorney once they learn the charges.
What happens at an arraignment hearing?
An arraignment hearing is the first formal court hearing in a criminal case. These hearings take place in both misdemeanor and felony cases.
Judges use these hearings as an opportunity to:
- advise defendants of their Constitutional rights
- inform defendants of the specific charges that have been filed against them
- accept an accused’s plea
- set, modify, or exonerate an accused’s bail
The arraignment hearing takes place once the local District Attorney’s office or the local City Attorney’s office has filed formal charges against a defendant.
As to a defendant’s Constitutional rights, note that both the United States Constitution and state constitutions grant defendants a variety of rights that they may exercise at an arraignment and during a criminal court case.
An arraignment is a formal hearing where the accused is:
- informed of the charges they are facing
- advised of his or her rights
- advised about the consequences of a plea
- asked how they plead
At an arraignment, a person can be charged with one or more of the following levels of crime or public offenses:
One important distinction between felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions is:
- a felony may be punishable by death or prison
- misdemeanors are punishable by up to one-year county jail
- infractions are not punishable by imprisonment
The procedures for infraction arraignments are basically the same as misdemeanors. Two important differences are that a person accused of an infraction:
- is not entitled to a jury trial
- is not entitled to appointed counsel
Courts can collectively advise defendants charged with misdemeanors and infractions of their rights. This is usually done by showing a video.
Please note that there are several procedural motions that can be made at an arraignment.
When does a felony arraignment take place?
There are actually two arraignment hearings in the lifespan of a felony case. One occurs at the very start of criminal proceedings. The second happens after the preliminary hearing – if the result of that hearing is to hold the defendant to answer on the charges. For now, we’ll focus on the first of these: the initial arraignment.
If you committed an offense that requires you to remain in “custody” (that is, in jail), you must be arraigned within 48 hours of your arrest, not including weekends and holidays.1 This timeframe establishes the maximum amount of time the police and prosecutors have to place you before a judge. (See our article on how long it takes to get a court date for a felony case.)
Depending on the circumstances, sometimes even making you wait 48 hours could be considered unreasonable – an issue that your attorney could explore and potentially argue on your behalf.2
If there is an unreasonable delay between your arrest and your arraignment, the delay converts an otherwise lawful arrest into an unlawful detention. This type of potential police misconduct may entitle you to civil (or monetary) damages from the law enforcement agency for violations of California’s false imprisonment law. However, unlawful detention will not typically result in a dismissal of the case, unless
- you can prove that the delay deprived you of a fair trial, or
- otherwise caused you to suffer some type of prejudice or unfair injury.3
If you are being arraigned on a felony complaint that doesn’t require you to remain in custody – that is, you were released following your arrest, or you bailed out – you must be arraigned “without unnecessary delay.” In reality, however, if you’re out of custody, it may be weeks or even months before your arraignment.4
Example: John is arrested Friday night for felony assault with a firearm<. He’s held in the West Valley Detention Center in lieu of $50,000 bail. Because he’s in custody, the prosecutor must arraign him no later than the following Tuesday (2 court days).
On Saturday, however, John’s family posts bail and he gets released. Because John is now out of custody, the D.A. no longer needs to arraign him within this timeframe. Therefore, John is given a notice to appear for his arraignment three weeks later, rather than Tuesday.
When is a misdemeanor arraignment?
The 48-hour rule applies to all crimes that require you to remain in custody, regardless of whether they are felonies or misdemeanors. That said, most defendants are released following a misdemeanor arrest.
When this is the case, the misdemeanor arraignment hearing generally does not take place for at least ten days following your arrest.5
What are my rights at the hearing?
Both the United States Constitution and the California Constitution empower you with a variety of rights during all criminal procedures. During your arraignment, the judge (or, in larger counties, a prerecorded announcement) will advise you of these rights.
These Constitutional rights include:
- the right to be represented by an attorney (which includes the right to be represented by a court-appointed public defender if you are not able to afford a private criminal defense attorney),6
- the right against self-incrimination,
- the right to a speedy trial (enforceable through something called a Serna or speedy trial motion),7
- the right to a trial by jury, and
- the right to produce and confront witnesses.8
If you have been accused of committing an infraction, only some of these rights apply. For example, a defendant charged with an infraction is not entitled to a court-appointed attorney or a trial by jury.9
Can my lawyer appear on my behalf?
If you were arrested for a felony offense, you typically must appear in person at your arraignment hearing and most other proceedings. There are exceptions that either
- allow you to appear via a two-way audio/video conference (sometimes called “video court”), or
- excuse your presence altogether if you execute a written waiver, and the judge accepts your waiver.
If you were arrested for a misdemeanor, you are typically permitted to have your attorney appear on your behalf unless your charge is for
- California domestic violence charges,
- alleged violations of a protective order, and
- certain aggravated offenses involving driving under the influence (DUI), such as Vehicle Code 23153 VC California’s “DUI causing injury” law or Penal Code 191.5(b) PC California’s “vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated law”.4
What happens if I fail to appear?
If you or your attorney fails to appear (commonly referred to as an FTA), the court will generally issue a California bench warrant. A authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest you and bring you directly to court.
Failing to appear on a felony case may trigger a separate felony charge. Failing to appear on a misdemeanor case is a misdemeanor.13
In most misdemeanor cases an attorney can appear on behalf of the accused. For certain misdemeanor crimes, the accused must appear at the arraignment even if represented by an attorney. These crimes include:
- domestic violence offenses,
- violation of a domestic violence court order,
- some driving under the influence or DUI-related charges.
In felony cases, the accused must be present for the arraignment. If the accused is in custody video arraignments are allowed.
What should I bring to the hearing?
You will want to bring your attorney as well as any paperwork the police, jail, or bail bondsmen gave you. If you have documents or evidence that could aid in your defense, you will probably want to bring those as well. You will likely leave the arraignment with:
- a copy of the formal complaint that prosecutors filed against you,
- possibly a copy of the police report pertaining to your case, and
- possibly an offer to resolve your case.6
The arraignment is the prosecutor’s opportunity to inform you of the charges that are pending against you. This is also his/her first opportunity to make you an “offer” which is the sentencing that he/she seeks for the crime(s) you have allegedly committed.
When do I enter a plea?
The arraignment presents your first opportunity to enter a “plea” in the case. Whether or not you choose to do so – or attempt to continue the case – will depend on your individual circumstances. If you enter a plea, it will either be:
- guilty (in which case, you will proceed to a sentencing hearing, and all further stages of the criminal court process will be limited to post-conviction issues),
- nolo contendere (or “no contest”) which is essentially a guilty plea (the difference being that a “no contest” plea can’t be used as evidence against you in the event that there is also a civil case that arises from the incident), or
- not guilty (in which case you will proceed to the pretrial or phase of the California criminal court process).
Although most defendants who are represented by attorneys do not plead guilty or no contest during the arraignment phase, sometimes it is strategically advisable to do so. This may be the case, for example, in order to avoid further prosecution for more serious, uncharged offenses.
Deferred entry of judgment or diversion
In certain cases, you could request a deferred entry of judgment pursuant to Penal Code 1000 PC. This is a diversion program that allows you to abide by certain terms and conditions that – once you complete – entitle you to a dismissal of the charges.”
Deferred entry of judgment most commonly applies to
- certain drug offenses,
- certain cases involving child abuse and/or neglect under Penal Code 272 PC (contributing to the delinquency of a minor), and
- Penal Code 470 PC California’s “bad check” forgery cases.8
Will the judge consider reducing my bail at the arraignment?
Most likely, yes, although this issue could be set aside and argued at a more formal bail hearing which would likely be held within a week of your request. If you plead not guilty, the judge will
- modify, or
your bail. “Bail” is money that the court requires you to pay in order to assure your court appearances. The amount of bail varies depending on the crime involved. A County bail schedule sets forth the amount for bail for each type of crime.
If you feel that your bail is too high or that you should be released on your own recognizance (more commonly referred to as an “O.R. release”), you may ask the judge to modify the amount.
Whether the judge considers this issue at your arraignment or at a future bail hearing, he/she will presume that you are guilty of the charges and makes his/her decision with that presumption in mind. The judge then considers
- the danger you may pose to the community, and to specific parties in the case
- your flight risk (if you are employed, live in the area, and/or have friends or family in the area, these community “ties” will usually weigh in your favor).19
After considering these factors, the judge may decide to
- keep the set bail amount,
- modify your bail by reducing or raising it, or
- release you O.R.20
If you obtain an O.R. release (which is common for many first-offense misdemeanor cases that do not involve allegations under California domestic violence law), it means that the court believes you will keep your promise to appear in court as instructed.21
If you do not obtain an O.R. release and you cannot afford to post bail, you must remain in custody until your case is resolved.
2020 Update for Los Angeles County: Except in serious or violent felony cases, most arrestees will be released without having to pay bail. Learn more in our California bail article<.
2021 Update for California: People can no longer be incarcerated solely because they cannot afford bail. Clear and convincing evidence is required to show that detention is necessary to protect public safety. See In Re. Kenneth Humphrey on Habeas Corpus, (March 25, 2021); Maura Dolan, California’s top court ends cash bail for some defendants who can’t afford it, Los Angeles Times (March 25, 2021)
Can charges be dropped at an arraignment hearing?
Criminal charges generally do not get dismissed at an arraignment. While prosecutors can dismiss a charge if there is a compelling reason to do so (for instance if they learn that a defendant was wrongly charged), in practice, they rarely do this. This is true with both
An arraignment hearing is the first formal court hearing in the criminal court process. In most jurisdictions, judges use the hearing to advise defendants of their Constitutional rights, make decisions on issues involving bail, and instruct defendants on the charges filed against them.
If charges are not dropped during an arraignment, then defendants can enter their plea as to the charges filed against them. An accused can plead in any of the following ways:
- not guilty, or
- no contest (sometimes referred to as “nolo contendere”).
Further, if charges are not dismissed, then defendants enter the pre-trial phase of the criminal court process. This phase includes events like court appearances and
- plea bargains or
- plea negotiations.
Can a judge drop a criminal charge at an arraignment hearing?
Judges do not generally have the authority to dismiss charges at an arraignment, and in practice, they normally do not.
With that said, however, the prosecutor can dismiss charges at arraignment, but only if there is a compelling reason to do. An example of a compelling reason is if the prosecutor uncovers that a defendant was wrongly charged with a crime.
Sometimes the prosecutor and defense counsel enter into an early plea deal at the arraignment, and as a result, a charge or charges against the accused get dismissed.
Defendants should contact a criminal defense attorney post-arrest and prior to their arraignment. Once they secure representation, the persons accused of a crime can work with their criminal defense lawyer to examine all the evidence in their case to understand the charges filed against them.
This evidence may include:
- the arrest report,
- an officer’s notes from the arrest,
- the names and statements of any witnesses to the alleged crime,
- any documentary evidence referenced by the district attorney, and
- any physical evidence (for instance clothing, weapons, lock-picking tools, etc.).
Upon examination of the above, defendants and their attorneys may find that a prosecutor wrongly charged an offense. Defense counsel, then, can file a motion to dismiss the charge.
Once the arraignment is held, judges will then review the motion and the evidence available in the case. Judges can go ahead and grant the motion if they find that any charges are not supported by ample evidence.
Note, however, that it is not typical for a criminal charge to get dismissed at an arraignment. In most cases, the arraignment takes place and the criminal court case advances into the pre-trial phase of the proceedings.
What plea can a defendant enter if charges are not dropped during an arraignment?
If charges are not dismissed at an arraignment hearing, then defendants can enter their plea as to the charges filed.
An accused has the option of pleading:
- guilty (in which case the defendant will avoid a jury trial and proceed to a sentencing hearing),
- no contest, which is like a guilty plea but the plea cannot be used as evidence against an accused if there is also a civil case that arises from the incident), or
- not guilty (in which case the accused proceeds to the pretrial phase of the criminal court process).
What if I was unlawfully arrested?
If California police arrested you on a misdemeanor charge without a warrant – and you remain in custody at the time of arraignment – you may request a probable cause hearing through a Penal Code 991 motion.
A probable cause hearing requires the judge to determine
- if there is probable cause to believe that a crime was, in fact, committed, and
- if you are the person who committed that crime.
“Probable cause” is a legal standard that means
“a state of facts as would lead a man of ordinary care and prudence to believe and conscientiously entertain an honest and strong suspicion that the person is guilty of a crime.”10
Probable cause hearings are typically conducted at the time of the arraignment.
What happens post-arraignment?
If a judge does not dismiss the charges filed against a defendant during the arraignment, then the case enters “pre-trial.”
As the name implies, pre-trial includes all events that take place prior to an accused’s jury trial.
These events may include things like:
- certain court appearances,
- attorneys filing motions with the court (or requests for the judge to take desired actions),
- “discovery” matters (where parties exchange relevant evidence with one another), and
- plea bargains or plea negotiations.
With respect to other motions.
When applicable, the arraignment is also your attorney’s first opportunity to argue against pending orders, such as a restraining order or stay-away order (which are most common in connection with California domestic violence cases and alleged violations of Penal Code 646.9 PC California’s stalking law).
This is simply another reason why it is so important to consult with an attorney prior to your arraignment if you can afford to do so.
Yes. Experienced criminal defense attorneys can often work out a resolution prior to the arraignment. Sometimes it is even possible to prevent a case from being filed by conducting a prefiling investigation on behalf of the client.
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- California Penal Code 825 PC. Dragna v. White (1955) 45 Cal.2d 469. People v. Valenzuela (1978) 86 Cal.App.3d 427.
- California Penal Code 859 PC.
- California Penal Code 853.6 PC.
- California Penal Code 977 PC.
- California Penal Code 1320 PC.
- California Penal Code 988 PC. United States Constitution Amendment VI. See also California Constitution Article I, section 14.
- People v. Bas (1987) 194 Cal.App.3d 878.
- California Penal Code 1000 PC.
- California Penal Code 1275 PC. California Penal Code 1270 PC. California Penal Code 1318 PC. People can no longer be incarcerated solely because they cannot afford bail. Clear and convincing evidence is required to show that detention is necessary to protect public safety. See In Re. Kenneth Humphrey on Habeas Corpus, (March 25, 2021); Maura Dolan, California’s top court ends cash bail for some defendants who can’t afford it, Los Angeles Times (March 25, 2021). Except in serious or violent felony cases, most arrestees in Los Angeles County will be released without having to pay bail.
- California Penal Code 991 PC. People v. Ingle (1960) 53 Cal.2d 407.