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What Is An Arraignment in California?

Posted by Richard Wagner | Apr 14, 2023

What Happens At My Arraignment?

Arraignment Court

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash 

When a person is arrested in California, they have a right to know the charges the prosecutor filed against them. They also have a right to plead guilty or not guilty. This all happens at an arraignment. It can be a particularly nerve-wracking time for anyone, even those who have gone through this experience before and have been previously charged with criminal activity.

Knowing what to expect can help relieve some stress and anxiety, and so Orange County Criminal Defense DUI Attorney Richard Wagner wants to inform you of the process and your rights. He believes informed clients make the best decisions for themselves. Contact him at (714) 721-4423 to schedule a FREE consultation and get the help you need to secure the best outcome in your unique situation. 

Arraignment Process in California

An arraignment is your first appearance in court. Its purpose is to advise the defendant of the charges against them. There are slight differences depending on whether you have been charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.

The judge can either formally read the charge or charges to a defendant, or you can waive that right. The judge will then ask the defendant how they plead. You will also get a copy of the accusatory pleading filed by the prosecutor. In California, there are three kinds of accusatory pleadings: complaint, information, and indictment. 

In California, the information is used far more often than the indictment in felony cases.

Although the prosecutor may seek an indictment from a grand jury after an arrest and a felony complaint, the indictment procedure is seldom used in California.

The prosecution seeks an indictment when the secret nature of grand jury proceedings is an important factor. Or when there are complicated factual issues, multiple counts, or multiple defendants. 

Timing of the Arraignment

A defendant cannot be held indefinitely without knowing what the charges are against them. They must be allowed to seek release from custody, if possible.

When the defendant is charged with a felony and in custody, the arraignment must take place "without unnecessary delay." This means no more than "48 hours after your arrest, excluding Sundays and holidays." If you are out of custody, no specific deadline applies.

Arraigning the defendant at an early stage ensures:

  1. Their case is progressing; and
  2. They are not spending more time in custody than necessary. 

Summary of an Arraignment

The specific procedures and rules for arraignment vary among jurisdictions. In addition to reading the charges and taking the defendant's plea, a court may also read out the substance of the charges, confirm that the defendant understands them, and inform the defendant of their constitutional rights, like their right to a lawyer and right to a speedy trial.

The judge may also decide on bail and schedule a court hearing on it. Depending on how the person pleads, the judge may also schedule a preliminary hearing, a pretrial conference, and/or a trial and other court dates.

The Right to Waive Arraignment

You also have the right to waive arraignment. This is not in your best interests, however, unless you have hired a criminal defense attorney who has successfully negotiated terms of release with the prosecutor before the arraignment. This often happens when the charges are less serious.

Arraignment versus Indictment in California

Sometimes there is confusion regarding an arraignment or an indictment because, in both instances, the alleged suspect is informed of charges to be brought against them. An arraignment, however, is different from an indictment. While an arraignment is an opportunity for a defendant to hear the charges against them and enter a plea, an indictment is a legal document formally charging a defendant with a crime and is usually only used in felony cases. 

A defendant can be charged by law enforcement authorities or by an indictment issued by a legal authority, such as a prosecutor. Once a defendant has been charged, their case proceeds to an arraignment hearing. 

Note, in some states, a grand jury must issue an indictment. A grand jury is a group of impartial, randomly selected citizens who hear from the prosecution and witnesses. Grand jurors must be citizens of the United States, over 18 years of age, and residents of the county for at least 1 year immediately before being selected. Then, they decide whether sufficient evidence exists for the defendant to be charged. 

Understanding Pleas at an Arraignment in California

When a judge asks a defendant how they plead to a charge during an arraignment hearing, a defendant can enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. 

  • A guilty plea indicates the defendant accepts the charges and allegations. By entering a guilty plea, the matter will proceed to sentencing either immediately after the arraignment or at a later date. 
  • A not-guilty plea (nolo contendere) indicates the defendant is contesting the allegations and the matter will proceed to the next step, which is usually a preliminary hearing or pretrial conference. Pleading not guilty is advised because it offers you the only opportunity you will have to either (1) negotiate a plea deal; or (2) fight the charges against you. Remember: the State of California must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty, and that is a high bar to achieve. Criminal defense attorney Richard Wagner will fight for you, and if a plea deal is in your best interest, he will make sure the terms favor you and not the state. 
  • A no-contest plea indicates the defendant is accepting a conviction for the charge but not admitting guilt. Like a guilty plea, the matter will proceed to sentencing either immediately after arraignment or at a later date. 

Will I Be Released or Taken into Custody?

The judge decides whether a defendant is released on their own recognizance, is released after granting bail, or is taken into custody.

To be released on your own recognizance, the following two factors must exist:

  1. The charge is less serious; and
  2. You pose no risk to others.

To be released on bail, the judge will consider the following factors:

  • Whether you have family ties in the area
  • What your ability and resources are to flee the city, state, or even the country
  • What danger, if any, do you pose to the community
  • Are you employed locally (length of employment)
  • Your criminal record including previous failures to appear
  • The seriousness of the offense charged
  • Any other factor that may be relevant

When released either on your own recognizance or by bail, the judge can set certain terms and conditions of the release. If you violate the conditions, you can be taken into custody and set bail. Possible conditions can include:

  • Do not use or possess alcohol or illegal drugs
  • Submit to random drug testing
  • Do not drive without a valid driver's license and proof of insurance
  • Do not possess any weapons

Some defendants may be taken into custody immediately after the arraignment. This does not automatically mean you will not be released. You are entitled to a bail hearing where you can challenge the judge's decision. Read more about Bail

In any of the scenarios, it is always best to have a competent, committed Criminal Defense DUI Attorney representing your interests. Richard Wagner works to effect the best outcome for all of his clients. He has the skill, knowledge, and resources to negotiate, strategize, and argue successfully in your defense.

Do You Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer for an Arraignment in California?

You're not always legally required to have a lawyer represent you at an arraignment hearing. However, it's worthwhile speaking to an attorney before your arraignment so you can obtain relevant advice about your case and the options available to you. Engaging an attorney at this early stage also allows them to start preparing for your case. 

After arraignment, your lawyer can ask the court to schedule appropriate pretrial motions for hearing, pretrial hearings for plea negotiations, and trial dates. 

A defendant in a felony case is typically required to appear in person at their arraignment and most other court proceedings unless they sign a waiver of appearance. 

Most misdemeanor defendants may appear through their lawyer at all stages of their case, including the arraignment. This means your lawyer can make most, if not all, of your court appearances, so you do not have to miss work or school or find childcare. Exceptions are domestic violence cases and some serious driving under the influence cases.

That said, it is in your best interest to be represented by an attorney. Going before a judge in open court is stressful. It is at the arraignment that you realize the gravity of what you face. A lawyer by your side will ensure your rights are upheld and advise you on what to say to the judge so that you do not make a bad impression.

Plus, if you seek release, a judge may set harsh conditions for your release. An attorney can counter those conditions and persuade a judge to set different, more favorable terms.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney in Orange County Today

An arraignment can be scary for many people, especially if it is your first time before a judge in open court. All eyes will be on you when the charges against you are read. Not only is a criminal defense attorney a strategic move on your part, it is also a comforting one. Knowing that someone has your interests in mind will help you throughout the course of the arraignment and your criminal case.

Contact The Law Office of Richard Wagner today either by filling out the online form or calling us at (714) 721-4423 to schedule a FREE Consultation. Richard Wagner is here to help you get through the criminal justice system as smoothly as possible.

About the Author

Richard Wagner

Attorney Profile Defense Lawyer Richard Wagner upholds and defends freedoms and liberties enshrined in our United States and California Constitutions.  “Richard was able to achieve an even better outcome for my case than what we initially thought was possible. I couldn't be more grateful to h...