When a person in Washington is charged with a crime, the most common question is "Now what?" Find out what to expect from the courts after you have been charged or arrested.
In this blog post, I will review the criminal court process in Washington state courts. I will explain what happens at each hearing and what you can expect to happen in between. I will explain how an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you be prepared every step of the way.
Not every crime results in an arrest. However, the police have the authority to arrest a person when they have "probable cause" (a good reason) to believe that person has committed a crime. Usually, the police must go to the court and request an arrest warrant from the judge. However, if the officer witnesses the crime (as is the case in many traffic charges and DUI cases), he or she can arrest the person right away.
In the days immediately following your charge or arrest, you will be brought before a judge for an arraignment. At this hearing the judge will read what crime you have been charged with and ask you to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
Remember, at this stage, pleading "not guilty" means you do not presently admit to being guilty. It does not necessarily mean you didn't do it. Many people attend arraignments without an attorney. Even if you have already hired an attorney, he or she will likely not have the information needed to recommend a plea. By pleading not guilty, you give your attorney time to review the charges against you and any possible defenses.
The judge at your arraignment will also set or review bail (the money paid to release you from jail and secure your promise to come back to court to resolve the case). If you have hired a criminal defense attorney at this stage, your lawyer can fight for a lower bail amount or ask for your release on personal recognizance, getting you out of jail so you can get back to your life.
After arraignment, you will need to return to court for at least one pre-trial hearing or omnibus hearing in Superior Court. These hearings allow your criminal defense attorney to get important information from the prosecutor (including police reports and any evidence against you). This information sometimes takes time to gather, so there are often "continued" pre-trials until both sides have had time to fully investigate your case.
Because many people do not hire an attorney until after the arraignment, I can address changes to your conditions of release at this time. I will also negotiate with the prosecutor during the pre-trial to determine if there is a possibility for a fair settlement. If you do decide to accept a settlement (it is always your choice), we will appear before the judge and enter the plea that day.
Attorneys can file motions for basically anything that is within the scope of the case. For example, at suppression hearings, the defense attorney argues that certain evidence should be excluded from the case. Examples of evidence than can be suppressed are statements made by a defendant to law enforcement and breath test results in a DUI case. Other common types of motions are motions to modify sentencing, motions for temporary release, and motions to consolidate or sever charges and/or defendants.
As the date of your trial nears, you will be required to attend a readiness or trial setting hearing. This allows your lawyer and the prosecutor one more chance to settle the case without a trial. If there is no settlement, the parties indicate they are "ready" and the court sets the case for trial.
The trial is where both sides present their cases with evidence and legal arguments. Most felony trials are in front of a 12-person jury. Trials in Courts of Limited Jurisdiction involve 6-person juries. However, sometimes it is better to choose to let a judge decide your case. Your criminal defense lawyer will explain the pros and cons to both and help you make a smart decision.
It is up to the prosecutor to prove that you committed the crime you were charged with beyond a reasonable doubt. Your lawyer will have a chance to present all of your legal defenses, and to ask witnesses to testify on your behalf. You may also choose to testify, but make sure you discuss that choice with your lawyer, so you can be ready.
After both sides present their cases, the jury will deliberate. It may find that you are guilty of all, some, or none of the charges presented. If the jurors cannot agree unanimously, then a hung jury is declared, and a new trial may or may not be scheduled in front of new jurors.
If you are found guilty of some or all the charges, or if you enter a plea agreement before trial, you will be sentenced for the crime. In misdemeanor cases the judge has wide discretion on what penalty to impose. In felonies and DUI cases, the law sets certain restrictions on the sentence. Sentencing in felony cases is complex. In either case, an experienced criminal defense attorney can argue on your behalf and help you reduce your sentence.
If you are facing criminal charges, it is important to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. Even before you are charged, a lawyer can help protect your rights and get a fair resolution. Representing yourself or taking a "wait and see" approach could put you at risk for a serious criminal conviction.
If you decide to hire the Campbell Law Firm early, I will be with you from arrest to sentencing. I will meet with you in a free 90 minute consultation so you will have plenty of time to understand the process and get all of your questions answered. I handle most cases with one clear flat fee, so you will know what to expect before you leave the office. When you're ready to choose Campbell Law Firm as your criminal defense firm, all you need to do is contact me.