Arraignment is a formal reading of a criminal charging document in the presence of the defendant to inform the defendant of the charges against him or her. In response to arraignment, the accused is expected to enter a plea. Acceptable pleas vary among jurisdictions, but they generally include "guilty", "not guilty", and the peremptory pleas (or pleas in bar) setting out reasons why a trial cannot proceed. Pleas of "nolo contendere" (no contest) and the "Alford plea" are allowed in some circumstances.
In England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Australia, arraignment is the first of eleven stages in a criminal trial, and involves the clerk of the court reading out the indictment. In every province in Canada except British Columbia, a defendant is arraigned on the day of their trial. In British Columbia, arraignment takes places in one of the first few court appearances by the defendant or their lawyer. The defendant is asked whether he or she pleads guilty or not guilty to each charge.
In federal courts of the United States, arraignment takes place in two stages. The first is called the initial arraignment and must take place within 48 hours of an individual's arrest, 72 hours if the individual was arrested on the weekend and not able to go before a judge until Monday. During this arraignment the defendant is informed of the pending legal charges and is informed of his or her right to retain counsel. The presiding judge also decides at what amount, if any, to set bail. During the second arraignment, a post-indictment arraignment or PIA, the defendant is allowed to enter a plea.
Form of the arraignment
The wording of the arraignment varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, it generally conforms with the following principles:
- The accused person (defendant) is addressed by name;
- The charge against the accused person is read, including the alleged date, time, and place of offense (and sometimes the names of the state's witnesses and the range of punishment for the charge(s)); and,
- The accused person is asked formally how he or she pleads.
Video arraignment is the act of conducting the arraignment process using some form of videoconferencing technology. Use of video arraignment system allows the courts to conduct the requisite arraignment process without the need to transport the defendant to the courtroom by using an audio-visual link between the location where the offender is being held and the courtroom.
Use of the video arraignment process addresses the problems associated with having to transport offenders. The transportation of offenders requires time, puts additional demands on the public safety organizations to provide for the safety of the public, court personnel and for the security of the offender population. It also addresses the rising costs of transportation.
Guilty and not-guilty pleas
If the defendant pleads guilty, an evidentiary hearing usually follows. The court is not required to accept a guilty plea. During the hearing, the judge assesses the offense, the mitigating factors, and the defendant's character, and passes sentence.
In the past, a defendant who refused to plead (or "stood mute") was subject to peine forte et dure (Law French for "strong and hard punishment"). Today in common-law jurisdictions, the court enters a plea of not guilty for a defendant who refuses to enter a plea. The rationale for this is the defendant's right to silence.
This is also often the stage at which arguments for or against pre-trial release and bail may be made, depending on the alleged crime and jurisdiction.
United States Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure
Under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, "arraignment shall [...] [consist of an] open [...] reading [of] the indictment [...] to the defendant [...] and call on him to plead thereto. He/she shall be given a copy of the indictment [...] before he/she is called upon to plead."