A definition of Arraignment Hearings, and their part in our legal system
Under American common law a basic tenet of due process is to make sure that the
accused party in a criminal proceeding knows exactly what he or she is being
charged with. The arraignment process provides the fundamental right and
explanation to the accused in a court of law and also allows the accused to make
a plea before the rest of the trial proceedings begin. To the layman, this procedure
may seem ceremonial and meaningless for the accused. In fact, the American
process which is modeled on the English court system provides a very important
hearing process that isn't always guaranteed in other countries.
Definition of Arraignment
The term "arraignment" comes from old practices of legal mistreatment. Originally,
a defendant in old French courts that didn't agree with the prosecution but didn't say anything else was punished
under a doctrine of peine forte et dure (strong and hard punishment).
The process and beginning court phase of arraignment provides a formal hearing in court. This hearing allows the
accused party to hear and obtain a written copy of the accusations being charged by the prosecution. It also specifies
who is bringing the charges against the party. The accused then gets a chance to make a plea, either agreeing with
the charges or disagreeing notably. Alternatively, if the accused does not have capacity to go to trial (i.e. insanity) then the arraignment is the
moment when this challenge occurs as well.
Under U.S. law, both in federal and state courts, the process of arraignment must occur within
one to two days. A person is not allowed to be jailed indefinitely in the U.S. without being
brought to court to be formally charged. This is one of the reasons, for example, why U.S.
forces keep alleged Al Qaida prisoners in Guantanamo; if they are not within a U.S. territory the
government is not obligated to bring them to an immediate arraignment to be charged.
The short timeline of the arraignment process is intentional. It forces the government to get its
details and prosecutorial case together quickly after it decides to charge someone. If the
government doesn't have a case, then it shouldn't be running around charging and arresting
people needlessly. In such cases where the government turns out to not have enough to make
a viable charge, the arrested person then has to be freed immediately without any charges filed.
Another aspect of arraignment is the process of setting bail. The U.S. court system generally
does not keep an accused person in jail until trial unless the person is an immediate threat to
the public or an obvious flight risk. To make sure the accused party doesn't disappear arbitrarily
when it comes time for trial, a monetary deposit (bail) is provided to the court by the accused
Typically ranging in the thousands to as much as a million U.S. dollars in some cases, bail ensures that the party won't skip town without
knowing a huge financial loss will occur in addition to being hunted down (not to mention having bounty hunters from the bail bondsman
company chasing the person as well).
The judge hearing the arraignment makes the final decision on the bail that must be paid. Both sides
will make their arguments that either the accused party is no risk and good community member, or
such a heinous criminal jail is the only safe place to be if not secured with a high bail amount. The
judge then considers the type of charge, the accused party's status in the community, and the risk of
flight before making a decision on if bail is approved and how much.
Afterwards, if bail is allowed, the accused either puts up the cash personally with the court clerk or relies on a bail bondsman service to pay
the deposit to the court.