If you’ve been arrested for a crime, you’ll learn about the charges that the prosecutor has filed against you in a court hearing called an arraignment. Unless the prosecutor dismisses the charges or you plead guilty, you’ll have a trial, in which the prosecutor seeks to prove those charges. Below we explain in broad terms what happens at arraignments and trials. In short:
An arraignment is a pre-trial hearing in front of a judge, sometimes called an initial appearance. At arraignments, defendants learn about their constitutional rights and the charges against them.
Defendants have a right to have an arraignment within a reasonable time after their arrest. Some states have a statutorily-required time limit and others do not. For example, many states require courts to arraign defendants within 48 to 72 hours after arrest, excluding weekends and holidays. Other states allow judges to decide what is reasonable on a case-by-case basis.
Defendants who are not booked into custody or who bail out of jail can expect their arraignment dates to be several weeks after their arrest.
An arraignment starts when the judge calls the case. A judge might say, for example, “Calling the case of People v. James Lewis.” The defendant, James Lewis, then stands at a podium in front of the judge’s bench. The judge hands Mr. Lewis a copy of the charging document, which informs Mr. Lewis what charges the prosecutor has filed against him and the maximum possible punishment for those charges.
The judge will also quickly tell Mr. Lewis about his constitutional rights, such as the right to a trial, the right to counsel, and the right against self-incrimination. In some states, the court advises defendants of their rights as a group before they appear in front of a judge for arraignment.
In some cases, an arraignment is combined with a “probable cause hearing.” A probable cause hearing is required when an officer arrests a defendant without a warrant.
At these quick hearings, a judge reviews the charges filed against the defendant and a brief sworn statement by the arresting officer. If the judge decides that there is enough evidence to believe that the defendant committed a crime, the case will proceed to trial (or more likely resolve by plea bargain—see below). If not, the judge will dismiss the case. Federal law requires courts to make a probable cause determination as soon as is reasonably feasible, but no later than 48 hours after arrest.
Some defendants hire lawyers before their arraignments, but many do not. If Mr. Lewis doesn’t have an attorney and can’t afford one, he should ask the court to appoint one. The court will appoint the public defender (or a lawyer who has offered to represent indigent defendants) as long as Mr. Lewis’ financial situation meets the standard of an indigent defendant. Defendants who don’t yet have lawyers might be told to return to court after meeting with an attorney.
Mr. Lewis should not be alarmed if his attorney tells the judge that he “waives formal reading and advisement of rights.” This waiver spares the judge from having to read the entire charging document aloud and spares Mr. Lewis from having to listen to the judge read it in front of a crowded courtroom.
Now that Mr. Lewis has an attorney, the judge will want to address his custody status. The judge is required to set bail in all but the most serious cases. Bail is money, property, or a bond paid to the court in exchange for a defendant’s release from jail while awaiting trial. The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants, once released, stay out of trouble and show up for future court dates (if they fail to show up, the government gets the bail money).
The prosecutor and the defense attorney will argue about the appropriate amount of bail. Alternatively, Mr. Lewis’s attorney will argue for the court to release him with a promise to appear, called an “OR” (own recognizance) release. The judge will consider the seriousness of the charges, Mr. Lewis’s ties to the community (such as residency, employment), and his criminal history when deciding whether to set bail and in what amount, or whether to release him on an OR.
In recent years, there’s been a movement to restrict or eliminate cash bail, based on arguments that release on bail favors those who can afford to purchase it, rather than on the defendant’s circumstances. Judges in bail reform states, such as California and New Jersey, evaluate a defendant’s likelihood of appearing in court and risk to public safety, rather than ability to pay bail. These jurisdictions rely on pretrial supervision by probation officers and other conditions of release (ankle bracelets, drug or alcohol treatment, stay-away orders) to address public safety concerns.
The final step at the arraignment is for Mr. Lewis to enter a plea. Mr. Lewis will almost certainly enter a plea of not guilty at this stage. The judge will set the next court date, which will probably be a status conference to see whether the prosecutor and defendant have reached a plea bargain (where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a promised recommendation of less jail time than the defendant was originally facing). The overwhelming majority of criminal cases end in plea bargains.
Defendants who decide to go to trial will also decide whether to give up their right to a speedy trial or keep the case moving as quickly as possible.
If the prosecutor has not dismissed the charges and the parties haven’t reached a plea deal, the case will eventually go to trial. Defendants have a right to a jury trial, but may also choose to have a judge alone hear the evidence.
The prosecution must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the prosecution has the burden of proof, it presents evidence first. Evidence might include witness testimony, physical evidence (such as a murder weapon or fingerprints), photographs, and video and audio recordings.
Then, the defense has the option to present its evidence. For example, a defendant might choose to testify, but no one can make the defendant testify.
The lawyer who calls a witness asks the witness questions through direct examination. Each side can cross-examine the other side’s witnesses.
After the close of evidence, the judge instructs the jury on the law that applies to the case. In their closing arguments, the attorneys talk to the jurors about the law and the evidence and try to convince jurors to vote in their favor.
Finally, the jury deliberates and tries to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty. A verdict of not guilty is an acquittal. A verdict of guilty is a conviction. Judges, not juries, determine the punishment for convicted defendants at a sentencing hearing.
If less than the required number of jurors agree on a verdict, the jury is "hung." The prosecution can dismiss the case, enter into a plea bargain, or try the case again.