Anyone can be charged – even by mistake – with a crime. If you are arrested and charged with a misdemeanor or a felony in the state of Washington, whether you are innocent or guilty as charged, it is important to know as much as possible about the criminal justice process and about what happens when someone is charged with a crime in this state. A good understanding of how the system works can help those facing criminal charges make the best choices for themselves.
In every state, the criminal justice process typically begins with an arrest. In some cases, a warrant for the arrest has been signed by a judge, but police officers also make on-the-spot arrests when they witness or respond to crimes. Either way, a police report follows the arrest and the booking procedure. The report summarizes the events leading up to the arrest and the details of the arrest – the date, time, location, names of witnesses, and other pertinent facts.
Usually, a prosecutor determines on the basis of the police report whether or not to charge the suspect with the alleged crime. In the state of Washington, this is when an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney can sometimes intervene on a client’s behalf to have the charges being considered reduced or not even filed at all. The sooner a defense attorney can go to work, the more that attorney can do on behalf of a client.
In some cases, a prosecutor will take the police report and other evidence to a grand jury and seek an indictment there. In the state of Washington, if a defendant is charged by a prosecutor but not indicted by a grand jury, a judge will then conduct a preliminary hearing to decide if there is genuinely enough evidence to move forward with a formal prosecution. When a judge believes the evidence offered by a prosecutor is insufficient, charges against a defendant may be reduced or dismissed at that point in the process.
HOW SOON AFTER AN ARREST MUCH CHARGES BE FILED?
In all fifty states, prosecutors have wide discretion regarding whether or not to file charges for any particular crime, and also they decide precisely which criminal charges will be pursued. In most cases, the law requires prosecutors to file criminal charges quickly after an arrest – within just two or three days – so the original charge against a defendant may change over time as the case develops.
Some of the factors a prosecutor may consider can include the policies of his or her own office. There may be a policy of cracking down on particular types of crimes and more-or-less overlooking other types of crimes. A prosecutor’s personal ideas about justice also inevitably play a role. Understandably, some prosecutors might be overly zealous in their prosecution of crimes like rape and child abuse; others might be uninterested or lackadaisical about prosecuting what they consider “victimless” crimes.
Finally, in some cases, politics itself plays a role. The public, for example, simply will not accept a system that doesn’t prosecute armed robbers and intoxicated drivers. And a particularly heinous crime can generate a public outcry for an aggressive prosecution. Winning such cases makes a prosecutor prominent and popular with the public and launches many successful political careers.
PRECISELY HOW DOES A GRAND JURY WORK?
Although most charges are based directly on police reports, in some cases – particularly controversial cases – a prosecutor will convene a grand jury and ask the jurors to return an indictment. Grand juries may consider almost any type of evidence and interrogate basically anyone they wish. Grand jury hearings are less formal than trials, and they’re confidential. The identities of witnesses, for example, may be kept secret to ensure that they can speak freely.
Grand juries cannot decide guilt or innocence – they only decide if charges should be filed. Grand juries meet secretly, may have as many as 23 jurors, and do not need unanimity in order to return an indictment. Prosecutors also use grand jury hearings as “test” trials to see how jurors will receive and respond to the evidence they present. A grand jury’s determination is not binding. If a grand jury fails to indict, a prosecutor may still choose to file criminal charges against a defendant – although such cases are quite rare.
In the state of Washington, if a case is a felony case and a prosecutor files charges without convening a grand jury, a preliminary hearing is conducted to determine if there is adequate evidence to warrant a prosecution. However, if a grand jury indicts, no preliminary hearing is conducted because the indictment itself presumes there is enough evidence to move forward with the prosecution.
EXACTLY HOW DO PLEA BARGAINS WORK?
Most criminal cases are never heard by jurors. Criminal cases in Washington and every other state usually conclude with a plea bargain agreement. You probably know how that works. A suspect pleads guilty to one or more charges, and in return, the state drops or reduces any other charges or recommends a reduced or alternative sentence to the court. In some circumstances, a plea bargain can keep a criminal defendant from going to jail, but in this state, a defendant should never plead guilty or accept any deal without first consulting an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney.
If your case goes to trial, usually the first step is selecting jurors. The judge and attorneys will consider potential jurors from a jury “pool” to select a “jury of your peers.” The trial starts with an opening statement by the prosecutor. Both the prosecution and the defense may question and cross-examine witnesses and introduce and challenge evidence. Then each side summarizes its case with a closing statement. The jury receives its instructions from the judge and then deliberates until there is a verdict.
If you are charged with any felony or misdemeanor in the state of Washington, you cannot afford to act as your own attorney. Far too much is at stake. If you are arrested on any charge, exercise your right to remain silent, insist on your right to have an attorney present during any questioning, and follow your attorney’s advice and recommendations. The criminal justice system still delivers justice, but winning that justice for yourself is more likely when you understand the procedure and have a good attorney fighting on your behalf.