Out of court

Monday, February 8, 2010

What happens at my first court appearance?

What happens at the first court appearance (intake) for misdemeanors?
If the crime is a DUI or domestic violence misdemeanor, you must appear for the arraignment. That is the court appearance at which the charge is formally presented or read and invariably the plea is not guilty. Bail may also be argued at the hearing. Do not waive any rights, including your right to a jury trial, at arraignment. A waiver of any rights should only be done after consulting a lawyer. If the charge is a different misdemeanor, the arraignment may be waived by a lawyer, if you have one in advance of the arraignment date. A person arrested and booked in the jail for a misdemeanor will usually appear on the next business day for arraignment and bail hearing.

What happens during a felony arrest?
If you are arrested and booked for a felony in a state case, the first appearance is usually at what is called an “investigation calendar.” The purpose of that court appearance is for a judge to determine if there is probable cause to hold you in jail or require bail, and if so, to set bail. In most courts, the judge makes the probable cause determination based upon a sworn police statement which summarizes the charges. It is a very low threshold and the court assumes the allegations are true. In a small number of cases, a court will find no probable cause. After probable cause is determined, then the lawyers can argue for bail or for a personal recognizance (PR) release. A PR release is a simple, signed promise by the arrested person to return to court.
Whether the arrested person is released or not, the court will then set a second appearance date, which will be within 72 hours of the booking time in the jail. (Weekends and holidays do not count in the 72 hour rule.) Arrested people who are not released from jail must have a charge filed by the prosecutor by 4:30 p.m. of the second appearance date, or be released from jail that day.
In King County, people who have not been released following the first court appearance are usually not brought back to court for the second appearance. However, people who are released must return to court for the second appearance. At that second hearing, they are either informed that charges have been filed and they must come back to court for arraignment, or they are released outright. For those still in jail, the court frequently reads a list of those who will be released later that day and those who will stay to face filed charges.
NOTE: an outright release DOES NOT MEAN THE CASE IS OVER. All it means is the prosecutor did not file the charge within 72 hours of booking. The prosecutor can still file charges within the statute of limitations, which can be a few years or without limit, depending on the crime.

What happens if I am arrested for federal charges?
If you are arrested for federal charges, you will be brought to federal court the next business day for your first appearance. At that hearing, the court decides if the complaint containing the allegations establishes probable cause. If so, bail may be argued. However, in many federal cases (e.g., drugs, firearms, bank robbery) the prosecutor can move for detention, and no bail hearing is held for at least 3 days. The arrested person is then held at the Federal Detention Center at SeaTac until that time.
Most federal charges are based on indictments handed down by a 23 person grand jury. The accused and/or lawyer for the accused normally has no opportunity to appear before that grand jury. If a person is arrested and held on a complaint, a preliminary hearing is set. However, they rarely occur since they are cancelled when the government obtains an indictment. Thereafter, an arraignment occurs. That is when the charge is formally presented or read and invariably the plea is not guilty.

What happens at a bail hearing?
Whether a person is in city, state or federal court, bail issues are very similar. All Courts look at: the criminal record, if any; the record a person has of showing up to court in the past (e.g., “FTA’s,” failures to appear are bad); ties to the community—including family, job, education, and length of residence; and the nature of the criminal charges. It never hurts to have family, friends, references and other material in court to support bail reduction or a personal recognizance release.

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