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The Significance of the Arraignment

Though the specific elements of an arraignment can vary depending on the details of the alleged crime, there is a common pattern to each arraignment: following an arrest, a defendant is brought before a judge to hear the details of the alleged violation; the defendant is told the particular criminal charges that will be filed by the district attorney; the defendant has the opportunity to declare himself guilty or not guilty.

We see this scene reenacted so often in crime dramas that we can overlook how an arraignment incorporates key fundamental elements of the individual/government relationship. These elements include each person's constitutional rights, the government's role in preserving public safety, and the separation and balancing of governmental powers to preserve both rights and safety.

The Elements of an Arraignment

When the alleged violation is classified as a misdemeanor, there is only one arraignment, which takes place after the arrest and before the pre-trial conference, motions, and trial (if necessary). At this arraignment, the district attorney files a "complaint," which lists the alleged violations by the defendant and the severity of the charges (some crimes are "wobblers" that can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies). The judge also makes sure that the defendant is aware of his/her constitutional rights and sets bail (when necessary).

When the violation is classified as a felony, there are two arraignments. The first arraignment takes place after the arrest, just like the one described for misdemeanors, and precedes the preliminary hearing, at which the judge determines whether sufficient evidence has been presented by the DA that a crime has been committed and that the defendant might have been involved. If the judge rules that there is enough evidence for the case to proceed, a second arraignment takes place at which the district attorney files a second version of the complaint - called an "information" - which reflects the judge's rulings made at the preliminary hearing. This second arraignment is followed by pre-trial conferences and motions, and the trial.

Arraignments incorporate several important tenets of the court system.

  • The district attorney's office - not the police or sheriff's departments - have the authority to file criminal charges. While the police have the power to arrest, detain, and gather evidence, they must give all documentation (called discovery) to the district attorney for evaluation on whether to proceed with the case.
  • The defendant must be informed in court of any criminal charges being filed by the DA and then have the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty.
  • The defendant has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. The defense attorney's job is to present the defendant's view of what occurred, challenge the district attorney's version as necessary, reference legal doctrines and previous judicial decisions that support the defendant's case, and make sure that police follow appropriate procedures.
  • A judge acts as arbiter for the proceedings, ensuring that both sides follow the court's rules and interpreting the law as necessary.
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The arraignment - though simple in structure - brings together important fundamental principles of the criminal justice system: limitation and distribution of power, right to legal counsel, reliance on evidence and established procedures, presentation of and response to criminal charges in open court.

If you have questions about arraignment or other elements of the criminal justice system, call me at 916-442-1200.

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