Stages of a Criminal Case
All criminal cases in Washington, from a simple traffic ticket to a major felony prosecution, must follow procedures established by the U.S. Constitution and state and federal law. These procedures guarantee that defendants may prepare their case with the assistance of a criminal defense attorney. While the system is far from perfect, with overburdened courts and sometimes overzealous prosecutors, our knowledge of and experience in Washington’s’ criminal court system allows us to help defendants assert their rights. Criminal cases follow several important stages that defendants should understand.
Initiation of Charges
Prosecutors must filed formal charges in order to initiate a criminal case. They may have to appear before a judge to establish probable cause during an investigation, and they may have to obtain an indictment from a grand jury in a felony case. If a defendant is in police custody, prosecutors must hold a hearing within forty-eight hours of the defendant’s arrest to determine charges. If prosecutors do not file charges within certain specific time limits, it could mean the defendant’s unconditional release from custody.
Once formal charges are in place, the court must hold a hearing, known as an arraignment, to notify the defendant of the charges and hear the defendant’s plea. The court may also order the defendant at this hearing to perform certain services or avoid contact with any alleged victims. Because this hearing generally takes place shortly after the defendant’s arrest and the filing of charges, the defendant often has not had an opportunity to prepare a defense, and may not have been able to hire an attorney. Defendants usually plead not guilty at the arraignment, even if they later change the plea to no contest or guilty.
The court may hold multiple pre-trial hearings to handle matters such as scheduling and to monitor the progress of any services or conditions imposed on the defendant. A judge may hold hearings to monitor the progress of plea negotiations, and parties may wish to address issues relating to access to witnesses or evidence during the pre-trial phase. In the event of a plea agreement, the court may hold a hearing to consider the agreement and the defendant’s plea.
A defendant may file a wide range of motions during the pretrial stage, including motions to dismiss some or all charges, motions to suppress evidence, and motions to limit trial testimony. The court may consider these motions in pre-trial hearings, or may address them shortly prior to the beginning of trial.
The court will hold a readiness hearing, known in some cases as an omnibus hearing, sometime between a few weeks to a few days before the scheduled trial date. The purpose of this hearing is to address or resolve pre-trial motions, review discovery, and take care of any other pre-trial matters.
While defendants are entitled to a trial by jury, they may elect to waive that right and have the judge hear their case. A trial consists of jury selection, known as voir dire, opening statements, examination of witnesses and presentation of evidence, jury instructions, and closing arguments. The judge or jury will then render a verdict of guilty, known as a conviction, or not guilty, known as an acquittal. Errors during the trial may result in a mistrial, in which case the trial is terminated and prosecutors may choose to begin the case again.
Judges in Washington criminal cases determine sentences in all cases, even those decided by a jury. Washington law establishes sentencing guidelines that take a wide range of factors into consideration. Defendants may make their own sentencing recommendations and present evidence at the sentencing hearing. Defendants can testify, but are not obligated to do so.
Criminal defendants in Tacoma and elsewhere in western Washington need the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney with knowledge of Washington’s legal system. Timothy L. Healy has protected the rights of defendants in criminal cases for more than 15 years, helping obtain dismissals and acquittals, as well as plea agreements and verdicts with significantly reduced penalties. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (888) 312-3093.