The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution gives a person charged with a criminal offense the right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.” The state or federal government usually meets this obligation to inform the defendant of the charges against them at the arraignment—also known as the initial appearance or initial hearing.
Usually within 72 hours of being arrested and charged, a defendant is brought before a magistrate judge for arraignment. At that time the judge will generally (1) read the criminal charges against the defendant; (2) ask the defendant how they would like to plead to the charges—guilty, not guilty, or no contest (if the defendant pleads guilty the next step is sentencing); (3) ask the defendant if they have an attorney or would like a court-appointed attorney; (4) determine whether to grant bail and if so, set the amount of the defendant’s bail, or revisit the amount of bail if it has already been set; and (5) announce dates of future proceedings in the case, such as the preliminary hearing, pretrial motions, and trial.
In many cases the law allows the defendant to be released from jail or prison before a trial if they meet the requirements for bail—and for lesser charges a defendant may be released on their own recognizance (promise to return to court for trial). Before the judge makes the decision on whether to grant bail, they must hold a hearing to learn facts about the defendant, including how long the defendant has lived in the area, if they have family nearby, prior criminal record, gang affiliations, and if they have threatened any witnesses in the case. The judge also considers the defendant’s potential danger to the community. And if the defendant cannot post bail (pay the money), the defendant will remain in jail—or in federal court, for example, the judge may order the defendant to be remanded immediately into the custody of the U.S. Marshals pending trial.
Laws regarding the timing and procedures for arraignment depend in part on the state or federal jurisdiction and the nature of the criminal charges.