What Happens After They Charge Me? Criminal Procedure In A Nutshell

This Legal Guide summarizes criminal procedure: arraignment, bail, pretrial hearings, motion practice, plea resolutions, trial and sentencing. At all points, a brief discussion is given regarding how competent, qualified attorneys can advance your position at all stages of the process.

THE CHARGES

Whether you were pulled over, received a citation in the mail, failed to appear on a warrant or were arrested at a party; you now face criminal charges. You need help. What are the charges? What is the evidence against me? How strong is it? Will I go to jail? How serious are my consequences if convicted? A qualified defense attorney can answer all of these questions and more. Sometimes, and if hired quickly, a good attorney can contact the Prosecutor before charges are filed and convince them to withhold filing charges altogether.

ARRAIGNMENT

In Washington, arraignment is held within 14 days of first appearances, or after the Prosecutor files their charges. At arraignment, the Prosecutor informs the judge of the defendant’s specific criminal charges. Sometimes, the Prosecutor also informs the judge of the probable cause for the arrest. The defendant has the option to say, “Guilty” or “Not guilty.” Most defendants plead “not guilty” because they want to know the evidence against them and whether the Prosecutor can meet their burden of proving the charges. After the plea is entered, the judge decides whether to release the defendant, impose bail, hold the defendant in custody without bail and/or impose pretrial release conditions. Here, a competent defense attorney is extraordinarily beneficial. First, they can possibly get the case dismissed at arraignment by asking the judge to review the police reports and find that no probable cause exists to support the charges. Second, a good attorney can also persuade the judge to release the defendant without having to post bail. This decision is based on a review of the defendant’s positive contacts with the community, employment status, prior criminal history, nature of the incident and (un)likelihood of missing court dates. If your vehicle was impounded during arrest, your attorney might also assist in getting your vehicle out of impound. And heaven forbid, if you failed to appear at your arraignment hearing then hiring an attorney can stop the police from arresting you on a bench warrant. For more information, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Quash Your Bench Warrant,” “Making Bail,” and “Vehicle Impounds: The Reasons, the Rules and (Hopefully) the Release.”

PRETRIAL HEARINGS

A defendant has three options at pretrial hearings: (1) continue the matter to another pretrial hearing in the future, (2) enter a plea bargain resolution which resolves the case, or (3) confirm the matter for trial. Each option carries its own merits, and a qualified defense attorney usually has a strategy in choosing one of these options. For the most part, continuing a matter is good because it gives defense attorneys more time to investigate the matter, construct a solid merit package for the client or argue pretrial motions to suppress/dismiss the case. Entering a plea deal is beneficial if all parties have mutually agreed to reduce a defendant’s criminal charges and/or consequences in a manner which justifiably makes sense to everyone involved. Finally, confirming the case for trial is beneficial insofar as making the Prosecutor decide whether their case is strong enough for trial. Sometimes, Prosecutors are more apt to negotiate a reduction or dismiss charges altogether after realizing their case against the defendant is not very strong.

PRETRIAL MOTIONS

When necessary, defense attorneys argue pretrial motions to advance their client’s position. Among other things, pretrial motions could ask the judge to suppress evidence; dismiss the case, demand information held by the Prosecutor and/or demand interviews with witnesses. Short of dismissing the case, pretrial motions also protect the defendant’s rights from being violated by unlawful search, seizure or arrest. Competent defense attorneys are constantly reviewing recent case law decided by the United States Supreme Court, Washington Supreme Court and the various Courts of Appeals. They draft legal briefs in advance of the motion in an effort to try convincing the judge to apply the case law to the defendant’s circumstances. Along with strong legal briefs, good pretrial motions practice could involve testimony from witnesses and admission of different exhibits. A strong pretrial motions practice weakens the Prosecutor’s case and persuades Prosecutors to either dismiss the matter or negotiate a reduction of the charges. For more information on Pretrial Motion Practice please read my Legal Guides titled, “Dismissing Cases Through Knapstad Motions,” “Subpoena Duces Tecum: Getting More Evidence to Support Your Case Theory,” Persuading Judges to Admit Collateral Evidence Outside the Immediate Facts of the Case,” “Search & Seizure: Basic Issues regarding Their Search for Weapons, Drugs and Other Contraband,” and “Make the Prosecutor Cooperate! Arguing Motions to Compel Pretrial Discovery.”

PLEA RESOLUTION OR JURY TRIAL?

A plea bargain is an agreement between the Prosecutor and the defendant. Once the Prosecutor and defendant have agreed to the specific portions of the plea bargain (reductions, jail time, fines, evaluations, treatment, restitution, etc.), the plea resolution is presented to the judge; who decides whether to accept it or not. Plea resolutions are beneficial insofar as avoiding the inherent riskiness of trial. On the other hand, trial is beneficial if the State’s case/evidence is weak. Jury trials involve juries deciding issues of fact. Juries are selected from the beginning in a process called voir dire, better known as jury selection. As trial commences they hear opening statements, the testimony of witnesses, cross examination and closing arguments. After the State and defense have presented their case in chief, the judge instructs the jury on the law. Deliberations begin. Eventually, the jury decides a verdict of guilt, acquittal or hung jury. Unlike jury trials, bench trials involve judges (not juries) deciding issues of law. Both types of trials have their benefits and setbacks. A competent defense attorney will know which type of trial best suits the defendant’s circumstances. For more information on plea resolutions which end in dismissals, please read my Legal Guides titled, “Getting Cases Dismissed Via Stipulated Order of Continuance” and Dismissing Property cases” The Compromise of Misdemeanor.”

WHAT HAPPENS AT SENTENCING

If a defendant is found guilty, the case proceeds to a sentencing hearing. At sentencing, the judge decides what kinds of consequences to impose. The judge hears recommendations from both the Prosecutor and Defense Counsel. Needless to say, a competent attorney is extremely beneficial at sentencing hearings. They’re very familiar with all aspects of the case, and can effectively humanize their client in the eyes of the judge. In more serious cases involving felonies – and before the sentencing hearing happens – a defense attorney will draft and file a legal document called a Sentencing Memorandum. These documents give in-depth information on the defendant. They also discuss the available options under the WA Sentencing Guidelines which judges could impose in lieu of jail or prison. Contact a qualified defense attorney for a free consultation on your case. Along with discussing your substantive defenses, they should inform you of the different scenarios which could happen procedurally while your case is pending in court. Good luck!