Anyone charged with a domestic violence related crime in Washington state will be required to appear in court. If charged with a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor domestic violence crime, your case will be heard in a district or municipal court. If charged with a felony domestic violence crime, you will appear in superior court.
If accused of DV, you must be notified of the specific allegations against you. This happens at arraignment and starts the legal process. Your case could be resolved at any point during the process or may go to trial.
Below outlines the general process that most courts use for criminal cases. While some courts give different names to similar hearings – these are the typical court appearances that will occur in a criminal case. It is very important to be present for all hearings unless your lawyer specifically tells you otherwise.
Initial Appearance/First Appearance:
The first time you appear in court facing a Washington domestic violence charge is a very important hearing. If you were arrested and are in custody, this hearing generally occurs within 24-48 hours of when you are first booked into jail. At this hearing, the judge must make a determination if there is probable cause that you committed a crime, if you should be required to post bail to be released from jail, and what conditions should be imposed on you while the case is pending. These conditions, such as a domestic violence no contact order, can have serious repercussions on your ability to return to your home, see your family, and have access to your property.
In some courts, this hearing will also be your arraignment and in other courts you will be scheduled to return for an arraignment when charges are officially filed.
An arraignment is the hearing at which you are formally notified of the domestic violence accusations you are facing. At arraignment you will be asked to enter a plea. Your options are to plea "not guilty" or to plea "guilty."
You should always enter a plea of not guilty to any domestic violence crime at arraignment unless an experienced attorney has advised you otherwise. This is true even if you feel that you would like to take responsibility for what happened or that the government will have a strong case against you. You will not be penalized in any way by the prosecutor or the judge by entering a plea of not guilty at arraignment. In fact, most judges would strongly discourage you from pleading guilty at arraignment without the benefit of consulting with an attorney first. Both the judge and the prosecutor understand that pleading not guilty is a legal step and not an attempt to avoid responsibility. If it is appropriate and a good option on your case, there will be opportunities to change your plea in the future.
If your arraignment is the first time you have appeared in court on your domestic violence case, the judge must determine if there is probable cause that you committed a crime and what conditions you must abide by while the case is pending. The judge may also require that you post bail/bond to remain out of jail while the case is pending. You and your attorney will have an opportunity to object to conditions of release and bail/bond.
In domestic violence cases it is common for the judge to impose a no contact order with the complaining witness (alleged victim) at the arraignment. It is very important that the no contact order be followed as failure to do so is a criminal offense.
An experienced attorney can advise you on the expected conditions of release and the likelihood of a court setting bail in your case and help you prepare to post it quickly so that you can avoid spending any time in jail.
You will receive notice of future court hearings at your arraignment. Generally, the next hearing scheduled will be a pre-trial hearing, but in some courts you may also be given notice of additional dates such as a date for trial.
The next hearing in your DV related case is typically called a pre-trial hearing. A pre-trial hearing is an opportunity for the court to monitor the progress of your case, confirm that you are complying with any conditions of release, and resolve any issues that may arise in the investigation of the allegations against you. The first pre-trial hearing is typically scheduled anywhere from two weeks to 30 days from your arraignment.
Appearing at the pre-trial hearing will be you, your lawyer, and the prosecutor. In the courtroom will be other defendant's with cases scheduled at the same time and their lawyers. Generally, witnesses are not required to be present for your pre-trial hearing as it is not a time when any evidence or substantial legal motions are presented to the judge. However, a courtroom is a public place and the court cannot prohibit anyone from attending who chooses to.
It is very common for a case not to be ready for resolution at the first pre-trial. If that is the case for you, your attorney will request a continuance of the pre-trial and a new hearing will be scheduled sometime in the next 2 weeks to 30 days.
If your domestic violence case does not resolve during the pre-trial stage, you may choose to proceed to trial. It may be appropriate for us to bring legal motions before a judge to decide various legal issues prior to your trial. Whether or not to bring legal motions prior to trial can depend greatly on the specific facts of the domestic violence allegations against you and our strategy for the case. We can discuss the pros and cons of each option with you and help you make the best decision on how to proceed.
The following are examples of some legal motions that may be relevant in your Washington domestic violence case:
- Motion to dismiss for an unconstitutional delay in filing charges.
- Motion to dismiss for failure of the government to preserve evidence.
- Motion to dismiss for violation of your right to a speedy trial.
- Motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence of a crime (Knapstad).
- Motion to suppress evidence (statements, pictures, items seized during a search).
- Motion to suppress evidence of invocation of right to attorney.
- Motion to suppress evidence of invocation of right to remain silent.
- Motion to suppress involuntary statements.
Readiness Hearings (Omnibus, Jury Call):
A readiness hearing is generally scheduled anywhere from several days to several weeks prior to trial. At this hearing both parties inform the court of their “readiness” for trial. It is common for cases to be continued at readiness due to witness availability issues, newly discovered evidence, court congestion, and other issues. Additionally, your case could be resolved at this hearing with a negotiated deal if appropriate.
While most Washington domestic violence cases are resolved prior to a trial, some cases proceed to a trial before a judge or a jury. A jury trial consists of six (misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor) or twelve (felony) randomly selected people from the community sitting as the “fact finder” who will decide if you are guilty or not guilty of the crime(s) charged. A bench trial allows the judge to be the sole “fact finder” in your case. In general, we recommend a jury trial for most criminal cases. However, deciding to proceed to a jury or a bench trial is one you should only make after weighing the pros and cons with your lawyer.
In a trial, the prosecutor must prove every element of the crime(s) charged beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact finder (the judge or jury) will hear the admissible evidence and be instructed in the applicable law. The judge or jury will then make a decision determining if the government successfully proved each element beyond a reasonable doubt (guilty) or failed to (not guilty). If the jury cannot agree on this decision, a hung jury results and a mistrial is declared. A jury must make a unanimous decision for a verdict to result in a criminal case.
In Washington State criminal cases, sentencing decisions are made by judges. This is true even if you are found guilty at a jury trial - the judge who oversaw the case would impose any sentence without input from the jury.
At sentencing, the prosecutor will make a recommendation to the judge. Unless there is a negotiated resolution on the case that requires an “agreed” sentence recommendation between both parties, you and your lawyer will have an opportunity to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge as well. These are just recommendations, and a judge will always have the authority to impose whatever sentence he or she believes is appropriate in your specific case.
You have a right to speak on your own behalf at sentencing – but not an obligation to. It may also be appropriate to have friends or family provide letters or appear to speak on your behalf at sentencing.