Criminal Court Procedures

Criminal Court Procedures

While there are some differences between courts, most criminal cases in the state of Washington follow a similar procedure. Below you'll find information regarding typical criminal court proceedings in courts in King and Pierce counties. Of course, if you are represented by one of our attorneys, he or she will endeavor to work to keep you informed every step of the way as your cases progresses through the criminal justice system. 

Procedure in District and Municipal Courts

Every criminal case goes through a process that it is important that you understand if you or a loved one has been arrested and charged with a crime. The situation can be extremely frightening and distressing and requires immediate help from an experienced, aggressive criminal defense lawyer to guide you through the process and fight to defend you. While there are some differences between different District and Municipal courts, most cases in the state of Washington follow a similar procedure.
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Police Investigation, Arrest and Charges

The first step in a a criminal case typically involves a police investigation. This can either be initiated by a reporting party contacting the police, i.e., a telephone call from a witness to an alleged assault, or police acting upon their own observations, i.e., officer observations of a vehicle weaving. This is then followed by further investigation by the law enforcement. 
As a general rule, as part of their investigation the police will prepare a police report and forward this to the prosecuting attorney. The prosecutor then makes the ultimate decision as to whether to file charges, and what charges to file. It is also possible for the police to file the charge directly into court, although this is less common.

You do not have to go through this along. In fact, if you have in any way become the focus of a police investigation it is tremendously important that you get in contact with an attorney as soon as possible. While it is rare, in certain circumstances your attorney may be able to prevent charges from being filed. The attorneys at Stewart MacNichols Harmell, Inc., P.S., are available during these early stages of the process. 

The Right to Counsel and the 2:00 a.m. Phone Call

 Many people are aware of the Sixth Amendment to the United State's Constitution which provides that a defendant has the right to "assistance of counsel." In Washington also we have a court rule which provides that "the right to a lawyer shall accrue as soon as feasible after the defendant has been arrested, appears before a committing magistrate, or is formally charged, whichever occurs earliest" and that "a lawyer shall be provided at every critical stage of the proceedings." CrRLJ 3.1(b)

While we recognize that If you are on our website you are, no doubt, no longer in police custody. However, you should know be aware that our attorneys make themselves available 24 hours a day for critical stage advice for persons who have been arrested. Our personal cell phone numbers are in jails and police stations. We know criminal law, and the ramifications the decisions that a person makes during the police investigation. Before you speak to anyone else about your case, invoke the right to counsel guaranteed to you under the United States Constitution, and recognized by Washington Court Rule, and call an attorney. 
An Attorney at Your Arraignment
As a general rule at the misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor level the first court date is an arraignment. It may also be the first court date at the felony level, although for felonies there may be a preliminary hearing prior to the arraignment where probable cause, release and conditions of release may be addressed.
At the arraignment the defendant is advised of the nature of the charges, the potential penalties associated with the charge and his or her rights including, amongst others, the right to a jury trial, the right to remain silent and, most importantly, the right to counsel. The judge may also review evidence that is available to the prosecution and make a finding of probable cause. Where this is done, the judge may set conditions on your continued release or even require bail and take the defendant into custody. A person charged with a crime is not required to go through this alone. They are entitled to be represented by an attorney. Furthermore, for many misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors an attorney will be able to waive his or her client's appearance at this hearing, which means that they do not have to appear at court. 

At Stewart MacNichols Harmell, Inc., P.S., we advise each client as to what needs to be done prior to their arraignment to begin preparing a defense and to limit the likelihood that they will be taken into custody. Where allowed by law, we waive our client's attendance at this hearing, and where they are required to appear, we stand with them at the arraignment, and we fight to keep them out of jail, and to make sure that each of their rights is protected.

The Pre-Trial, Negotiations and Proceeding Toward Trial

The next hearing is usually referred to as a pre-trial conference, pre-trial hearing, or simply the pre-trial.  In King County Superior Court it is called a Case Setting. Prior to this hearing the attorney should be investigating the facts, and researching the relevant legal issues related to the case. At a minimum he or she will have obtained the police report and any other discoverable materials in the possession of the prosecutor, and identified and begun interviewing additional witnesses. The investigation is ongoing, and will continue as the case proceeds through the criminal justice system. The investigation and research is  done with a purpose as criminal defense attorneys aggressively work to develop each of the available facts and theories which might convince the prosecutor and, if necessary a jury, of your innocence. 

Furthermore, your attorney look for irregularities and legal technicalities in the evidence and, if we believe that it was obtained improperly or is technically deficient under the law, we will challenge it and, whenever possible, have it excluded. Keep in mind that the prosecutor must prove each element of the crime "beyond a reasonable doubt."  With an aggressive defense attorney this can be a difficult burden for the government to meet. Your SBMH lawyer will fight for you, protect your rights and insist that the prosecutor meet this burden.

The actual pre-trial serves multiple purposes. For instance, your defense attorney may have had informal telephone or in-person conversations with the prosecutor, the pre-trial is the first official opportunity for the parties to discuss the case. As such, many plea bargains are reached at the pre-trial stage. When plea agreements cannot be reached, cases are set for trial. Under these circumstances, the parties complete the court's pre-trial order. This order includes important dates in the future of the case, as well as notice of motions that will be argued, and affirmative defenses asserted by the defense. It also includes the names of any witnesses that the parties intend to call should there be a trial.

Motions:  Suppression and Dismissal

Where motions are noted, the case is usually set for a motions date, although in some courts motions are reserved to the day of trial. The potential motions available on a case can be varied and complex. Amongst others, they include motions to dismiss, motions to suppress statements, and motions to suppress evidence. 

In order to ensure that all potential motions are addressed, a criminal defense attorney must be familar with both federal and state constitutional law, statutes, court decisions, court rules and administrative regulations. He or she also needs to be constantly aware that in the state of Washington we have an even greater protection from invasive police conduct than that provided by the United States Constitution.

For instance, not only does the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protect us from "unreasonable searches and seizures," Article I, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, provides that "no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law," and Washington court's have ruled that, under certain circumstances, this language provides even greater protection against unreasonable searches than that provided by the Fourth Amendment.

An example of this greater protection can be found in the recent case of State v. Snapp, __ Wn.2d __, 275 P.3d 289 (2012). In the Snapp case the Washington Supreme Court noted that, while under the Fourth Amendment the police may search a car without a warrant where the search follows the arrest of an occupant of the car and is based upon a reasonable belief that evidence of the crime for which he or she has been arrested may be found inside the car, such a search would be unconstitutional in the state of Washington State given the Article I, Section 7 prohibition against the disturbance of private affairs or invasion of home without authority of law.

On a given set of facts, the Snapp decision and Article I, Section 7 might provide the basis for a motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a search of a car after the arrest of its driver. Other examples of a motion that might be filed depending upon the facts of a particular case include:

motion to dismiss pursuant to the Washington case of State v. Knapstad, 107 Wn.2d 346 (1986), for lack of sufficient facts to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt;

A motion to suppress a breath test in a DUI case based upon a failure to comply with the procedures set forth in the Washington Administrative Code at 448-16;

A motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a "pretext" stop in violation of the court's decision in State v. Ladson, 138 Wn.2d 343 (1999); and

A motion to suppress statements obtained in violation of Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)

There are numerous other potential motions available depending upon the facts of a given case. 

The reality is that, while not all cases involve facts that provide a strong basis for a motion to dismiss or suppress, an attorney's motions practice is limited only by his or her knowledge of the law, his or her imagination, and whether or not there is a good faith basis given a specific set of facts to support a motion.  

To discuss and understand the motions that are potentially available given the facts of your case it is important to consult with a lawyer. 

Readiness Hearing / Jury Call

Prior to trial, most district and municipal courts set cases for a readiness hearing, also referred to as a jury call. A similar hearing in Superior Court is Referred to as an Omnibus Hearing.  The official function of this hearing is for the parties to confirm that the case is ready to proceed to trial. However, the hearing is also similar to a pre-trial in that it is another opportunity for the parties to negotiate a plea bargain.

Of course, in some circumstances the prosecution simply refuses to agree to an acceptable disposition. When this happens, our attorneys are prepared to set cases for trial, and we will prepare and try the case using the full resources of our firm with the single ultimate purpose of a not guilty verdict. The decision whether to agree to a plea bargain or set the case for trial will, of course, be yours. But you will not be required to make it until you've fully consulted with your SBMH attorney and he or she has explained the risks and benefits of each available option and made his or her recommendations.

Most criminal trials are jury trials. However, there are a limited number of circumstances where it makes sense to try the case before a judge, rather than a jury. These are called bench trials. They require that the defendant waive his or her right to a jury. The right to a jury trial is an important right and should never be waived unless and until a defendant has had the opportunity to thoroughly discuss the case with counsel.
A jury trial on a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor in municipal or district court will typically take one to three days. In preparation for trial your defense attorney will prepare motions in limine, which are motions heard prior to trial concerning evidence that may be offered during the trial, proposed jury instructions, and a trial brief. The trial itself begins with jury selection, which is referred to as voir dire. Both the prosecution and defense have an opportunity to ask questions of prospective jurors. Both sides may then challenge jurors. The jury is chosen from the jurors remaining after these challenges.

After the jury is sworn in, the prosecuting attorney gives an opening statement, The defense attorney may then give an opening statement, or may wait to give his or her opening until after the prosecution has finished its case. The prosecutor then begins calling the government's witnesses. He or she questions these witnesses, and the defense then cross-examines them. When the prosecution has finished calling the government's witnesses, the defense may put on a case. However, the defense is not required to do so. Once the defense has finished with its witnesses, the prosecution has an opportunity to call any rebuttal witnesses.

After all witnesses have been called, the judge instructs the jury on the law. The prosecution then gives the government's closing argument, also called a summation, the defense gives its closing argument, and the prosecution then gives its rebuttal closing argument. 

The jury then retires to the jury room for deliberations. They will ultimately reach a verdict of not guilty, guilty or, on occasion, there will be a hung jury.


While the goal is to avoid a conviction, where defendants are found guilty, or enter a guilty plea, the case is set for sentencing. This may occur immediately after the verdict and/or guilty plea, or the case may be set to a different date for sentencing. At the sentencing the prosecution will make a recommendation to the judge. The defense lawyer and defendant are also given an opportunity to address the judge. The court then imposes its sentence. The sentence following a criminal conviction can include jail time, and a fine.

Depending upon the charge, there may also be other automatic consequences. For instance, for some charges, such as DUI, Physical Control Reckless Driving, and a license suspension is mandatory, and this comes with a requirement of SR-22 insurance. For other charges, including many charges designated Domestic Violence, a person loses his or her right to possess a firearm. The court may also order that the defendant have no criminal law violations, keep the court apprised of his or her address, not drive without a license and/or insurance, and appear at all future court dates, and may impose additional conditions on the sentence, such as , defensive driving school or alcohol, an order that the defendant stay out of areas of racing activities and community service, among others.

Probation and Reviews

When you are sentenced following a criminal conviction it is likely that the court will sent conditions that you must meet as part of the sentence. You may also be placed on formal probation.  The conditions can both (1) require that you to do certain things, i.e., community service, obtain an alcohol drug evaluation, and/or pay restitution, or (2) require that you not do things, i.e., that you (1) not consume alcohol, (2) have no criminal law violations and/or (3) have no contact with a specific person or property. 

Sometimes, at the time of sentencing the court will set a review hearing to ensure that you are following through with your conditions, i.e., to make sure that you have obtained a required evaluation or enrolled in a required treatment program. More frequently a review hearing is set when the court becomes aware of a violation of one of the conditions, i.e., you have a new criminal law violation, and then schedules the matter for a review hearing.

Review hearings are tremendously serious. If there is a finding that you violated the conditions of the sentence, the court may impose jail time, or other serious consequences.  You should not appear at a review hearing alone. If you have received notice of a review hearing you should contact an attorney as soon as possible. The lawyers at Stewart MacNichols Harmell, Inc., P.S., are available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week to answer your questions, and the first call and consultation are free.
For a Free Consultation, Call or Email Us Today
South King & Pierce County (253) 859-8840 | Eastside (425) 454-9959 | Seattle (206) 901-9984
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