Arraignment vs. Indictment: When Is It a Criminal Charge? Understanding the Early Stages of a Criminal Case

by LegalFix
Posted: June 11, 2024

Being arrested can spur a whirlwind of emotions — fear, confusion, and uncertainty, to name a few. Legal terms like "arraignment" and "indictment" might get tossed around, adding another layer of complexity to the situation. In this article, we’re breaking down the differences between these two steps in a criminal case and clarifying at what point you officially face criminal charges.

What Happens After an Arrest?

The initial stages after an arrest involve booking, where your personal information is collected and fingerprints are taken. You'll be processed, which may include a mugshot and a health screening. Depending on the severity of the charges and your background, you might be released on bail. Bail is a financial guarantee that ensures your appearance in court at future hearings.

In some jurisdictions, you may have a preliminary hearing before the arraignment. This is essentially a mini-trial where a judge determines if there's enough evidence to proceed with a full trial. 

Entering the Courtroom: Arraignment vs. Indictment

Now that we have a general understanding of what happens after an arrest, let's delve into the courtroom proceedings and distinguish between arraignment and indictment. 

The Indictment

An indictment is a formal document presented by the prosecution to a grand jury. The grand jury is a group of citizens who review the evidence presented by the prosecutor and vote on whether there's probable cause to believe a crime was committed. If a majority of the grand jury votes in favor of the indictment, the charges against you will move forward.

It's important to note that not all criminal cases require an indictment. This process is typically reserved for more serious offenses. For lesser crimes, the prosecutor may file a complaint directly with the court, bypassing the grand jury stage.

The Arraignment

An arraignment is your formal introduction to the court system in a criminal case. It occurs after a grand jury approves an indictment or a complaint is filed. At the arraignment, the judge will read the charges against you. This is your chance to understand the accusations you're facing.

At the arraignment, you'll be asked to enter a plea. Here's a breakdown of the different plea options and their implications.

  • Guilty: By pleading guilty, you admit to the charges and waive your right to a trial. Sentencing will typically proceed after the plea is entered.

  • Not Guilty: This plea signifies your intention to contest the charges in court. A trial date will likely be scheduled at this time.

  • No Contest (“nolo contendere”): A no contest plea is essentially forfeiting your trial for sentencing purposes without formally admitting guilt. It can't be used against you in a future civil case, but it carries the same sentencing consequences as a guilty plea.

When Do You Face Criminal Charges?

Just because you're arrested doesn't automatically mean you're facing criminal charges. An arrest simply means the police have probable cause to believe you committed a crime. Probable cause is a lower standard of evidence than what's required for a conviction at trial, which is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

The official charging of a crime typically happens at the arraignment, after an indictment is issued by the grand jury. This is when you'll be informed of the specific charges against you and have the opportunity to enter a plea. 

What to Do If You Are Facing Criminal Charges

Being charged with a crime can be overwhelming, but you don't have to face it alone. The most important step is to secure qualified legal counsel as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney can be your trusted advisor throughout the entire process. 

An attorney can explain your legal rights and options, navigate the complexities of the legal system, work with you to build a strong defense strategy based on your case's specifics (such as challenging evidence, negotiating a plea deal, or going to trial), and represent you in all court appearances, ensuring your voice is heard and your rights are protected. 

Know Your Rights with LegalFix

Understanding the differences between arraignment and indictment can help you navigate the early stages of a criminal case. If you are facing charges, it is essential to have legal counsel. An experienced criminal defense attorney can be your trusted advisor throughout the legal process. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided to you at no charge.

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