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Your Seattle Criminal Case: The Basics

Like the rest of the Emerald City, you heard Macklemore's Thrift Shop and became inspired. Naturally you went to the Lifelong Thrift Store in First Hill and bought a great pair of slacks that someone's grandfather probably wore. But nobody -- not you, not the staff, and not the previous owner -- realized that Grandpa left a dime bag of "medicine" in the pocket. So when you're detained for looking suspiciously handsome and flashy, the cops don't believe you when you say "It's not my bag."

Strange things happen, and they sometimes put people on the wrong side of the law. Given all that you have to worry about, FindLaw is easing the stress (as if you were on Grandpa's medicine) and presenting this guide to the basics of a criminal case in Seattle. The guide can't guarantee a favorable outcome, but it can make sure you're not caught off guard.

Different Levels of Crime

What happens to you after arrest may depend on the seriousness of the crime. The State recognizes three general levels of crime and classifies them as: 1) felonies, 2) misdemeanors, and 3) gross misdemeanors. Felonies are the most serious crimes, and a statute must specifically designate the crime as a felony. Misdemeanors are relatively minor crimes, punishable by a maximum of 90 days in County Jail and/or a fine of upto $1,000. Gross misdemeanors are everything in between, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or $5,000 in fines.

The category of crime can determine which court hears your case. For example, King County District Court is reserved for misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases at all stages. Felonies may begin in District court, but are later handled in Superior Court after the preliminary hearings.

First Encounter with the System

A person's first encounter with the criminal justice system usually comes in the form of an arrest. Authorities typically book arrestees in King County Correctional Facility. Some people suspected of crimes are not arrested and booked. They are instead given a citation and are told to appear in court for an arraignment.

Preliminary Hearing

Within 48 hours of an arrest, a prosecuting attorney or a peace officer must show that there is enough evidence of the suspect's wrongdoing to continue holding the suspect. If the officer or prosecutor fail, the suspect goes free. The preliminary hearing is also when the court sets bail amounts. District Court in Seattle has a lot of discretion in setting bail, and amounts change based on the circumstances of each case.

You can bail someone out by posting bail at the reception window. The county accepts cash, cashier's check, or money order, but the latter two methods may delay an inmate's release. See the Jail's link for approved bonding companies .

The Arraignment

When an inmate remains in jail following a preliminary hearing, the court must have him/her appear within two weeks for an arraignment. If you're accused of a crime, the arraignment is where you are formally notified of the charges, and you are required to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. The King County Department of Public Defense ("DPD") will provide an attorney for your arraignment, but if you wish to have someone continue to work on your case, you must apply for DPD services.

DPD Services

The DPD provides free representation to criminal defendants who qualify for free services. If you earn too much money to receive free services, you can still request a public defender, but you will be required to "contribute." You will have to sign a promissory note saying that you will pay for your lawyer, at a reduced cost, and over several months. In either case you'll have to pay a $25 processing fee to obtain a lawyer. See the DPD's page for answers to frequently asked questions for more information.

Omnibus Hearing and Pre-Trial Hearing

In Superior Court cases, you may be scheduled for an Omnibus Hearing following arraignment. By that time, your attorney and the prosecutor will both have had time to investigate the case, exchange evidence, and build arguments about excluding some evidence. They will also continue to negotiate a plea in your case. A judge will decide, at the Omnibus Hearing, whether there needs to be further hearings and arguments before trial. You can still change your plea at this point. In District Court, the Pretrial Hearing covers the same material.

Jury Trial

In District Court, either the prosecution or the defendant may request a jury, and if elected, the jury will consist of six or fewer people. Superior Court juries feature twelve jurors. In both Superior court and District Court, all jurors must agree in order to reach a verdict.

Alternative Courts

The procedures for your case may be different if you participate in one of Seattle's diversion programs. For example, qualifying defendants may elect to participate in the King County Drug Diversion Court. The program's workers will supervise you and make sure that you are attending treatment sessions and remaining clean. Click on the above link or talk to your attorney for more information. The County has additional special programs in the form of Mental Health Court and Domestic Violence Court.

Additional Resources

After arraignment, you will have contact with an attorney who can answer most of the questions specific to your case. Also, see FindLaw's resources for more information on criminal law in general.

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