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Understanding Criminal Procedure and Arraignments in California

When a person is arrested in California, they have a right to know what the charges are against them. They also have a right to plead guilty or not guilty. This all happens at an arraignment. It can be a particularly nerve-wrecking time for anyone, even those who have been charged with criminal activity previously.

The first decision the prosecutor will make is whether to refer the case to the state court or to the federal court.  Federal court is a court of more limited jurisdiction and includes charges that involve federal law or territory such as crossing an international border with drugs such as fentanyl, marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. Also, because the federal government prints money, many cases involving currency are federal.   A federal case is not necessarily more serious than a state case. Most murder cases, including cases that carry the death penalty in California, are state cases. 

Knowing what to expect can help relieve some anxiety, and so at The Law Office of Russell Babcock, our criminal defense attorney based in San Diego will inform you of the process and your rights. We believe informed clients make the best decisions for themselves. Contact us at 1 (619) 531-0887 to schedule a free consultation and get the help you need to get the best outcome in your unique situation. 


On less serious charges, a person can be brought to court by a summons in lieu of arrest. That individual is issued a citation and date to appear in court. Not appearing in court after receiving a criminal summons can have serious consequences.  If you receive a notice to appear or summons, you should immediately contact an attorney 

Arraignment Process in California and in Federal Court

An arraignment is your initial appearance in open court. Its purpose is to advise the defendant of their right to know the charges against them, as such, the judge formally reads the charge or charges to a defendant and asks the defendant how they plead. 

Timing of the Arraignment

A defendant cannot be held indefinitely without knowing what the charges are against them. They must be allowed to seek release from custody, if possible. An initial appearance, therefore, usually occurs within a reasonable time of the defendant being arrested and charged, even though the precise timing of arraignment varies. Arraigning the defendant at an early stage ensures:

  1. Their case is progressing; and
  2. They are not spending more time in custody than necessary. 

Summary of an Arraignment

The specific procedures and rules for arraignment vary among jurisdictions. In addition to reading the charges and taking the defendant's plea, a court may also read out the substance of the charges, confirm that the defendant understands them, and inform the defendant of their relevant constitutional rights, like their right to a court-appointed lawyer. 

The judge may also decide on bail and schedule a court hearing on it. Depending on how the person pleads, the judge may also schedule a sentencing hearing, pretrial conference, and/or a trial.

The Right to Waive Arraignment

You also have the right to waive arraignment. This is not in your best interests, however, unless you have hired a criminal defense attorney who has successfully negotiated terms of release with the prosecutor before the arraignment. This often happens when the charges are less serious.

Arraignment versus Indictment in California

Sometimes there is confusion regarding an arraignment or an indictment because in both instances, the alleged suspect is informed of charges to be brought against them. An arraignment, however, is different from an indictment. While an arraignment is an opportunity for a defendant to hear the charges against them and enter a plea, an indictment is a legal document formally charging a defendant with a crime and is usually only used in felony cases. 

A defendant can be charged by law enforcement authorities or by an indictment issued by a legal authority, such as a prosecutor. An indictment or "true bill" is returned against a defendant by a grand jury of more than twenty individuals who meet secretly and decide if there is probable cause for the prosecutor to go forward with the case. A grand jury is a group of impartial, randomly selected citizens who hear from the prosecution and witnesses. Then, they decide whether sufficient evidence exists for the defendant to be charged.  Since the defendant is not present to testify or call witnesses on his behalf at the grand jury, the odds are stacked heavily in the government's favor in having a  true bill returned against a defendant. Many times a person does not even know they are being investigated or charged until a true bill is returned against them. 

Understanding Pleas at an Arraignment in California

When a judge asks a defendant how they plead to a charge during an arraignment hearing, a defendant can enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or  in state court, no contest. 

  • A guilty plea indicates the defendant accepts the charges and allegations. By entering a guilty plea, the matter will proceed to sentence either immediately after the arraignment or at a later date. 
  • A not-guilty plea indicates the defendant is contesting the allegations and the matter will proceed to the next step, which is usually a preliminary hearing. Pleading not guilty is advised because it offers you the only opportunity you will have to either (1) negotiate a plea deal; or (2) fight the charges against you. Remember: the State of California must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty, and that is a high bar to achieve. Our criminal defense attorney in San Diego will fight for you, and if a plea deal is in your best interest, we make sure the terms favor you and not the state. 
  • A no-contest plea indicates the defendant is accepting a conviction for the charge but not admitting guilt. Like a guilty plea, the matter will proceed to sentence either immediately after arraignment or at a later date. 

Will I Be Released or Taken into Custody?

The judge decides whether a defendant is released on their own recognizance, is released after granting bail, or is taken into custody.

To be released on your own recognizance, the following two factors must exist:

  1. The charge is less serious; and
  2. You pose no risk to others.

To be released on bail, the judge will consider the following factors:

  • Whether you have family ties in the area
  • What your ability and resources are to flee the city, state, or even the country
  • What danger, if any, you pose to the community
  • Your criminal record
  • Any other factor that may be relevant

When released either on your own recognizance or by bail, the judge can set certain terms and conditions of the release. If you violate the conditions, you can be taken into custody.

Some defendants after the arraignment may be immediately taken into custody. This does not automatically mean you will not be released. You are entitled to a bail hearing where you can challenge the judge's decision.

Some federal crimes have a presumption that a person will not be released on bail. That means that the offense is so serious that the defense must demonstrate to the court, that the person is not a "flight risk"  (the person will come to court) and that they are not a "danger to the community"

As you can see, bail matters are complicated.  It is also may be beneficial to get out of jail if you are going to later plead guilty because it gives you a chance to show the judge that you can follow the conditions of pre-trial release and are very serious about the judicial process. it is always best to have a competent, committed criminal law specialist representing you at all stages of the court proceeding.  Often, bail matters and even the charges can be arranged between the prosecutor and the criminal defense attorney before or at arraignment.  Russell Babcock ,  is a preminent defense attorney recognized for his high ethical standards and tremendous results in criminal cases.  Attorney Babcock is in the rare group of California Criminal law attorneys who is a Certified Criminal Specialist. Mr. Babcock has the skill, knowledge, and resources to negotiate, strategize, and argue successfully in your defense.


Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney in San Diego Today Before You Go To Court Or Are Charged

An arraignment can be scary for many people, especially if it is your first time before a judge in open court. All eyes will be on you when the charges against you are read. Not only is a criminal defense attorney a strategic move on your part, it is also a comforting one. Knowing that someone has your interests in mind will help you throughout the course of the arraignment and your criminal case.

Contact The Law Office of Russell Babcock today either by filling out the online form or calling us at 1 -619 531-0887 to schedule a Free Consultation . We are here to be your "tour guide" to the criminal law system, which is often baffling and daunting to individuals who are not attorneys.

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