Facing criminal charges is stressful, and fighting criminal charges is difficult. Having a lawyer who can evaluate your case and take the time to explain the process and help you know what to expect is crucial. I have defended hundreds of people from criminal charges in over 40 courts across seven counties, as both private counsel and a public defender. I have been there before and will use that experience to fight for you at every stage of your case and guide you through this challenging and intimidating process.
Simple Misdemeanor 90 days in jail, $1000 fine
Gross Misdemeanor 364 days in jail, $5000 fine
Class C Felony 5 years in prison, $10,000 fine
Class B Felony 10 years in prison, $20,000 fine
Class A Felony Life imprisonment, $50,000 fine
Crimes in Washington are classified based on their maximum penalties, from simple misdemeanors to Class A felonies. Some misdemeanors have minimum penalties, including mandatory jail for DUI convictions, restrictions on the right to possess firearms, and driver’s license suspensions or revocation, but most have no minimum penalty. Felony sentences are based on an “offender score,” which takes into account the type of crime, any prior convictions a person may have, and other information. The offender score is used to determine sentence length; higher offender scores lead to longer sentences. Superior Courts hear felony cases, while misdemeanors are generally in municipal and district courts. Here is a breakdown of each class of crime.
While some details can change from court to court, misdemeanor cases follow the same general timeline. Police investigate, often but not always make an arrest and then write reports. The police send the reports to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office reads the reports and decides on any charges to file. If a charge is filed, the defendant gets a summons to appear in court. You probably know this much because you got that summons, but all it says is when and where to go. What happens in court?
Felony procedures vary more widely form court to court, especially with the terms used for each type of hearing. Still, courts follow the general process of an arraignment, then status hearings, a decision on setting for trial, argument on any major motions, a trial confirmation hearing, and then the trial itself. Often felony cases have two main parts – one stage with no trial officially set, then a second stage after a trial date is chosen. In many local jurisdictions, prosecutors change and any prior plea offers come off the table if a case is scheduled for trial.
The first appearance is usually an arraignment. At this hearing, the defendant is formally charged. The judge or prosecutor tells them the crime and the maximum penalties, and if the judge finds probable cause for the charge, he or she can order bail or set conditions the defendant has to follow during the case. We plead not guilty, and get notice of the next hearing, usually called a pretrial hearing or readiness hearing.
The pretrial hearing is a status check with the court. Since most of the work before a motion or trial happens outside the court, the judge needs to know if the case needs more time, if either side is filing any motions, and when a trial will be. At pretrial hearings, both sides come before the judge and answer those questions. These appearances are usually short once you are before the judge, but there can be a wait in the courtroom for your case to be called.
A motion is one side asking the judge to do something. For example, in criminal cases, either side could ask the judge to throw out evidence so it can’t be used in trial by filing a motion to suppress evidence. The other side gets to respond, and then the first side replies. The judge will read all of this, and then everyone goes to court. Sometimes witnesses give testimony, sometimes not. In every motion hearing, each side gets to argue their position to the judge. Usually, a motion like this will have its own hearing date. Some shorter motions could be the same day as trial, or at a pretrial hearing.
Courts usually schedule a lot of cases for trial in the same week. At Jury Call, usually 1-2 weeks before trial, the cases are assigned a start date or postponed to a later trial week. In busy courts, this can be a hectic hearing, but like pretrial very little happens when you go before the judge.
In a trial, there are usually several short motions at the very beginning, called motions in limine, and then jury selection. Each lawyer speaks to the possible jurors and asks them questions, and then the lawyers can ask the judge to remove certain jurors. Once the jury is picked, the trial begins with opening statements, from the prosecutor and then the defense. Each side tells the jury what the case is about and what the evidence will show. After opening statements, the prosecutor calls its witnesses. Each time, we have the chance to cross-examine the witnesses and ask them our own questions. When the prosecutor finishes with its witnesses, we have the chance to present our own witnesses, who the prosecutor can also cross-examine. This is where the facts of the case come into the trial.
After all the witnesses have been questioned, the judge gives the jury instructions on the law. This is where the law of the case comes into the trial. After the judge reads the instructions, the lawyers give closing arguments. In closing arguments, each side lays out their case and connects the facts to the law to tell the jury what the right decision is. It can be the most important, and most stressful, time of a trial. Then the jury decides. If they all agree that the prosecutor proved every allegation beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendant is guilty. In most cases, the judge will decide the sentence at a separate hearing. If the jury does not all agree, the prosecutor must decide whether to try the case again. If all jurors agree that the prosecutor didn’t prove all the allegations, then the defendant is not guilty.
At a sentencing hearing, the judge decides what the penalty should be. Each side can make a recommendation, the defendant and any victims get a chance to speak, and the judge explains what the sentence will be. If there is a suspended sentence, the judge orders probation conditions and holds onto the authority to impose further punishment if those conditions are violated. The length of probation depends on the crime, with maximums set by law.