One of the core tenets of American criminal law is laid out in the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads in part: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.”

In essence, the amendment states that all people accused of a crime in the US have the right to have the charges against them explained by the court before the trial begins. That explanation happens during the second pretrial proceeding that most criminal defendants experience: an arraignment.

While commonly understood to be the proceeding in which a defendant enters a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty,” an arraignment is more accurately thought of as a chance for a defendant to hear precisely what they are being accused of. While the more modern practice of waived arraignment has become increasingly common, many defendants still choose to appear in court for a physical arraignment.

Below, we will look a little more deeply into what happens during an arraignment, what is meant by “waived arraignment,” and the options a defendant has when it is time to enter a plea for their case.

What Is an Arraignment?

Arraignments have been a part of criminal law for centuries, even before the Sixth Amendment guaranteed the right to arraignment to Americans. Before the 19th century, many people were illiterate, as primary education was far from a standard part of life for all. In many places, the accused were granted the right to have their charges read out loud to them and explained in a way that they understood. That process became known as arraignment, from the French verb aresnier (pronounced ah-rain-EAR), meaning “to speak reasonably.”

During an arraignment in an American court, four things will usually happen:

  • Charges against the defendant will be read aloud by the judge or the prosecutor, including the alleged date, time, and place of the offense.
  • The defendant will be informed of their right to defense counsel and, if they meet the standards for indigence, be provided with information about obtaining a free public defender.
  • The judge will ask the defendant to enter a plea, and the defendant will enter a plea of “Guilty,” “Not Guilty,” “nolo contendere,” an Alford plea, or stand mute, entering no plea.
  • The judge will formally record the plea, and the prosecution and defense attorneys will be notified of the deadline for filing motions pertaining to the case.

Does a Defendant Have to Appear at Their Arraignment?

Traditionally, yes, the defendant is required to appear at an arraignment. However, many jurisdictions allow defendants to waive their right to arraignment and instead simply receive a written copy of their indictment and accusation. In the event of a waived arraignment, there is no formal hearing, and nobody has to appear in court. The defendant enters their plea as a written statement, delivered to the court by their attorney.

Judge and lawyer discussing the sentence for prisoner

What Are the Possible Pleas at an Arraignment?

The two most common pleas are the two most obvious:

  • Guilty: The defendant accepts responsibility for the offense and agrees to waive their right to a trial. The offense and guilty plea will be recorded on the defendant’s criminal record, and the court will move directly into determining the sentence that the defendant will have to serve, as well as any other fines and penalties.
  • Not Guilty: The defendant maintains their innocence, and their guilt will be determined through a trial by judge or jury.

There are two other common pleas that defendants may enter with the court’s and the prosecutor’s approval during most arraignments in Georgia courts. The two seem similar, but there are slight differences between them:

  • Nolo contendere –Also known as a “no contest” or “nolo” plea, a plea of nolo contendere means that the defendant is not admitting guilt but is willing to waive their right to a trial and suffer whatever penalties handed down in sentencing.
  • Alford plea – Similar to a nolo plea, an Alford plea is a unique condition in which a defendant enters a plea of guilty while still maintaining their innocence. The Alford plea arose from a 1970 case in North Carolina wherein a man maintained his innocence of a murder charge but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him, causing him to choose to plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty.

The immediate results of both pleas are identical: the trial is waived, and the defendant is sentenced as though a guilty plea has been entered. The main difference between the two is that an Alford plea can generally be used as evidence in subsequent trials, while a nolo plea typically cannot.

A defendant may also choose to invoke their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination during the arraignment and stand mute or refuse to enter any plea at all. When a defendant stands mute, the court automatically enters a “not guilty” plea.

Does a Defendant Need an Attorney for Their Arraignment?

Yes, just as with any criminal court proceeding, a defendant should have counsel present during an arraignment. Their lawyer will be able to help them:

  • Understand the charges that are being brought by the prosecution
  • Potential penalties that could be imposed if the defendant is convicted
  • The outcomes and advantages/disadvantages of each plea option
  • Properly voice the plea to the court

The attorney will also be given a deadline for pretrial motions during the arraignment. Counsel usually has ten days to submit motions following arraignment, but that term can be longer or shorter depending on the nature of the case.

Even if the offense is a relatively minor one, anyone facing criminal prosecution in Georgia should retain a professional and experienced defense attorney to help navigate every step of the proceedings and increase the chances of a positive outcome.

Is Your Arraignment Date Approaching? Call Bushway Law Firm: 478-621-4995.

Gregory Bushway is a former prosecutor who has successfully served as a criminal defense attorney in Macon, Georgia, since 2013. He knows the state and federal court systems and has helped hundreds of defendants successfully navigate arraignments. Tell us about your case today: 478-621-4995

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