The following hearings take place in County District and Superior Courts in this order: Preliminary Appearance, Arraignment, Pre-Trial, Omnibus Hearing, Status Conference, and Trial. Below is a flow chart that explains each of these hearings:
- The Preliminary Appearance is the defendant’s first appearance in court after an arrest. At the time of the preliminary appearance, the Prosecutor will ask the court to establish probable cause that a crime or crimes have been committed. Once Probable Cause is established, the court will determine whether or not the defendant may be released under conditions of the court or detained on bail. If bail is set, and the defendant posts the bail, the court typically orders the defendant to have no contact with the victims, witnesses, or co-defendants in the case and have a verified address. This also applies if the defendant is released on their own personal recognizance (PR).
- The defendant will be appointed an attorney if needed. No plea will be entered.
- Notice and Summons or Arrest Warrant: In some cases, an arrest is not made immediately; rather the case is referred to the Prosecutor’s Office by a law enforcement agency. The Prosecutor’s Office may file charges and summons the defendant into court for an Arraignment or request a warrant be issued. If this occurs, conditions of release will be set at the Arraignment hearing.
- The Pre-Trial or Omnibus Hearing is the second court appearance where the defendant advises the court whether or not they wish to change their plea to guilty, ask for a continuance, or request the case to be set for trial. It is common for this hearing to be continued several times.
- “Plea Offer” – It is common for the Prosecuting Attorney to offer the defendant a “plea offer”, which means settling a case without a trial. There are several reasons “plea offers” or as they are also called, “plea bargains” take place. Problems of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, evidentiary issues, the defendant’s role in the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, or witness issues all provide reasons for plea bargaining. The Prosecuting Attorney may feel that they “know” the defendant committed a particular crime, but unless they can prove it “beyond a reasonable doubt” with legally admissible evidence, the Prosecuting Attorney could lose that case at trial. This could result in the defendant going free, and they cannot be charged again for the same offense.When it comes to plea offers, the Prosecuting Attorney is guided by the principle that the purpose of criminal prosecution is to obtain an appropriate sentence for the particular defendant. That sentence should be based on the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s past criminal history, if any. The legislature, through the Sentencing Reform Act, has set specific sentencing ranges for crimes in Washington State. The Prosecutor has limited discretion to deviate from these set ranges. If you would like to provide your input as the victim of crime to the Prosecuting Attorney regarding the plea offer, it is best to submit your Victim Impact Statement as soon as possible. Any plea offer is ultimately the decision of the Prosecuting Attorney.
- The Trial takes place after a defendant enters a plea of not guilty. Most trials are heard by a jury. If the defendant waives his or her right to a jury, a bench trial (heard by the judge only) would take place. Most trials are by jury unless the defendant waives his or her right to a jury trial. All trials in Juvenile Court are bench trials.
- If the defendant decides to change his/her plea to ‘guilty,’ a Change of Plea and Sentencing Hearing will be scheduled. At this time victims have a right to address the court verbally or submit a written statement describing the effects of the crime and views on sentencing. Sometimes the change of plea will happen on one day, and the sentencing hearing will be set over for a future date. In Juvenile Court, juvenile respondents are typically sentenced on the same day of their other hearings.