A federal arraignment is a federal court proceeding and is a very important part of federal criminal justice. An arraignment is one of the first steps in being charged with a felony at the federal level, after the grand jury has indicted you for a crime, and is a key part of the federal criminal justice process. When the arraignment occurs, you already have been investigated by the government, the grand jury has investigated and indicted you. You also have been arrested and have appeared in court.
The purpose of the arraignment is to inform you of your constitutional rights, especially of your Sixth Amendment right to be informed of the charges against you. Note that even if you are charged with a crime, you are innocent until proven guilty.
Federal or State Court?
Your case can end up in federal court rather than state court. This occurs on more serious charges, and also where jurisdictions in multiple states are involved. If the US Attorney’s Office brings the charges, then you will be prosecuted in federal court.
During this arraignment, you will usually communicate with your defense attorney, who will provide you with the best options available for mounting a defense.
An arraignment differs somewhat from a preliminary hearing, which is more like a grand jury proceeding. During the preliminary hearing, judges will decide if there is enough evidence for you to go to trial. Defendants can waive their right to have a preliminary hearing, so they do not have to be present.
During this arraignment, you will enter a plea of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ Or, you can enter a plea of ‘no contest.’ If you do the latter, you acknowledge that the prosecuting attorney has the evidence to prove you did commit the crime. However, you are not actually admitting your guilt.
In most cases, you will need to be present at this court appearance. However, criminal procedure rules at the federal level do allow you to waive your presence in court if it is only for a misdemeanor. Also, you also may sign a waiver and have your attorney sign the waiver, noting that the arraignment has been waived. In some cases, video teleconferencing can be done to do the arraignment.
The arraignment is different because the decision about whether there is probable cause to charge you with a crime already has been decided. Also, your presence usually is needed at the federal arraignment. Federal courts mandate that all defendants be at the felony arraignment. Some states may relax these rules.
A federal prosecution usually begins with you being arrested. The document that the arrest is recorded on is called the arrest warrant, or the criminal complaint. Remember that none of these documents are evidence. All that is done in them is your charges are set forth in them by the federal prosecutor.
At your arraignment, you will be told about your constitutional rights, including your right to counsel. If you do not yet have counsel at this arraignment, the court will tell you that you have a right to counsel.
Also, you have a right to a copy of the indictment, and also have the right to have the indictment read to you, or have the substance of the criminal charge explained.
While it is not really a right, bail can be determined at the arraignment. The magistrate may decide whether to keep you in jail or to release you on bail as the case is pending. They may set conditions for your release, such as paying bail and giving over your passport.
Your Duties At Arraignment
You should enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at your arraignment. You usually need to be present at the arraignment. But according to the federal rules of criminal procedure, you can have your presence waived if you are only facing a misdemeanor. Also, you may sign a written waiver and have your attorney sign it, agreeing that the arraignment has been waived and your are entering a plea of not guilty.
Many people have misconceptions about the arraignment; they think that they will be able to contest the charges made against them. In reality, the main reason you will appear is to enter a plea, and then for the judge to either set bail or release you on your own recognizance. In very serious cases, including rape and murder, the judge may opt to hold you without bail.
Your first appearance in court should occur within 48 hours of your arrest. The arraignment will be overseen by the magistrate judge. That judge will decide whether you should be released from custody pending trial.
Next, you will need to enter a plea after you are informed of the charges. Usually, you will be provided with a copy of the indictment, or details of any charges against you, and you then enter your plea. If you have not yet gotten your defense counsel, you may be encouraged to not enter a plea of guilty at this time.
The next step is for bail to be set. During this hearing, you will be able to ask for bail, or to be released before trial. Several factors will be involved in deciding if you should get bail. If you have strong ties to your family and the community, you may have a lower amount of bail set. If you might be a flight risk, or if your alleged crime was violent, the court may decide to keep you in custody.
Note that the bail amount and whether you should even get bail may be contested by the prosecutor. However, the decision on whether you should get bail is totally up to the court. You might be released on your own recognizance, but in most cases, a bail amount will be set.
The security for your bail bond may be cash, some type of property, or a cosigner’s signature. Your co-signer is vouching for you to show up in court. If you do not appear, the government can then hold your co-signer as fully responsible for the bail amount.
Trial Date May Be Set
As needed, a trial date may be set at the end of the arraignment. There also may be a schedule established for motion hearings. These can include in court arguments and as well as issues regarding the suppression of some evidence. The Federal Speedy Trial Act requires that you have the right to a trial within 70 days of your first appearance in federal court.
Note that if the charges against you are altered in any way, the federal court may have to schedule another arraignment.
In all federal courts, the judge may consider the US Sentencing Commission Guidelines, if you are eventually convicted in federal court of a crime.
So What's Next
If you are facing a criminal arraignment in Massachusetts, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner. Attorney Geoffrey Nathan can help you to construct a rigorous defense. For a criminal defense legal consultation, please contact him at (617) 472-5775.