The criminal justice system in Washington state can seem overwhelming, with an individual defendant facing all the resources of the state. Though the U.S. Constitution, state and federal law, and court procedures offer protections for defendants against abuses of the system by law enforcement and prosecutors, defendants must take care to defend their rights. Specific procedures vary from one court to another, and may differ based on the nature of the alleged offense, but all prosecutors and courts must respect defendants’ constitutional and procedural rights. An experienced criminal defense attorney with knowledge of the court system and criminal court procedures can help by vigorously asserting a defendant’s rights and ensuring that the court follows all the required steps of the criminal process.
Notification of Charges
While many criminal prosecutions begin with an arrest, that is not the event that begins a criminal case. Prosecutors must file formal charges, known as a complaint in misdemeanor cases, or seek an indictment from a grand jury in felony cases. The court must make the defendant aware of the charges, typically by giving formal notice at a court hearing known as an arraignment.
Arraignment and Plea
The arraignment is usually the first court appearance in a criminal case. The court must notify the defendant of the charge or charges, and the defendant must enter a plea. Defendants often enter a plea of not guilty at this stage of the case. If the defendant is not in custody, the court may impose restrictions on the defendant, such as requiring him or her to stay in the state or avoid other individuals involved in the case. A not-guilty plea gives the defendants and defense counsel the opportunity to gather evidence, review the charges and the state’s evidence, and plan a defense against the charges. Even if the case eventually results in a plea bargain, a defendant typically begins by pleading not guilty.
Once the court has arraigned the defendant, pre-trial procedures begin. The court may hold additional pre-trial hearings to establish schedules and address other pre-trial matters. These court dates give the defendant’s attorney the opportunity to speak to the prosecuting attorneys, both to obtain information about the case and to attempt to negotiate a plea bargain. Very few criminal cases go all the way to trial, and most are resolved through plea bargains. While a defendant and defense counsel should work to gather all relevant evidence in support of the defendant’s case, prosecutors may be willing to offer favorable terms in exchange for a guilty or no-contest plea. This could include a substantially reduced penalty, probation, deferred adjudication, or deferred prosecution. In some cases, prosecutors may dismiss a case outright in exchange for a defendant’s agreement to perform certain services or pay restitution to an alleged victim.
Defendants have a right to trial by jury, but may waive that right and have the judge decide the case. The Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, but overburdened court schedules often mean that a defendant must wait months or even years for a trial. The prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the judge or jury do not believe the prosecutor has met this burden of proof, they may refuse to convict the defendant, which is known as an acquittal. Once an acquittal has taken place, prosecutors are usually barred by law from charging the defendant for the same alleged offense again.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Washington, a criminal defense attorney experienced in Washington’s legal system can help. For more than 20 years, Vindicate has protected the rights of defendants in criminal cases throughout Seattle, Bellevue and elsewhere in Washington. Contact us today for your confidential case evaluation, or call (888) 212-4824