What Happens at an Arraignment Hearing in a Criminal Case?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Jul 19, 2019 | 0 Comments

judge during arraignment

An arraignment is a formal hearing where a person accused of committing a crime is told what the charges are. The accused is also advised that he or she has certain legal and constitutional rights. Finally, the judge asks the accused how he or she would like to plead.

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:

  1. guilty,
  2. not guilty,
  3. no contest (nolo contendere),
  4. former judgment of conviction or acquittal,
  5. double jeopardy,
  6. 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 is an Arraignment?

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, and
  • 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:

  • felonies,
  • misdemeanors,
  • infractions.

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. (See (

Can a Person Plead Guilty at the Arraignment?

Yes. The six pleas that can be made at an arraignment are:

  1. guilty,
  2. not guilty,
  3. no contest,
  4. former judgment (conviction or acquittal),
  5. double jeopardy,
  6. not guilty by reason of insanity.

Sometimes a person goes to an arraignment believing they will be able to tell the judge “their side of the story.” That's not how it works. As noted above, an arraignment is to:

  • inform the accused of the charges,
  • advise the accused of their rights,
  • ask the accused how they plead.

Most judges, when it gets to the “how do you plead?” part of the arraignment, will accept guilty with an explanation. The accused is then allowed to make a brief statement.

The accused also has the right to ask for a continuance of the arraignment. For example, once the accused is informed of the charges and possible consequences he or she may want to consult with an attorney.

For infraction arraignments the accused can often post bail and plead not guilty by mail.

California law also requires that an accused be advised that there could be immigration consequences to a guilty plea. These consequences could include:

  • deportation
  • refusal of admission to the United States,
  • denied naturalization.

Can an Attorney Appear at an Arraignment Without the Client?

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 Can Go Wrong at an Arraignment?

One thing that can go wrong at an arraignment is for an accused to be taken into custody. This could happen if the judge orders that bail be posted. Or sometimes more bail is required than what was previously posted.

It is also common for a judge to order bail for violence related misdemeanors and repeat DUI offenders.

Another thing that can happen is the judge might allow an own recognizance (OR) release but impose burdensome OR conditions. See

Please note that in California new cash bail laws were scheduled to go into effect October 2019. Those changes are now on hold due to a ballot referendum scheduled for November 2020.

Can a Criminal Case be Negotiated Prior to the Arraignment?

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.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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