Getting caught up in the criminal justice system can be frightening and confusing. Knowing what to expect won’t make the process any easier, but it can decrease your anxiety, and help you make better informed decisions about your case, and about hiring a DC criminal lawyer. This is the first in a two-part series that tries to shed some light on what lies ahead.
This post deals with the path of your criminal case in the DC court system if you have been charged with a misdemeanor. If you’re reading it, you’ve probably been arrested in Washington, DC for DUI, simple assault, domestic assault, solicitation, or another garden variety misdemeanor. That means one of two things happened. One, you spent a few hours locked up at the police station in the district in which you were arrested. They fingerprinted you, took your mugshot, and gave you a citation which informed you when you are required to be in court. Then they sent you on your way. If this is you, then consider yourself lucky (or at least luckier than some).
The unlucky were not released from the police station, but were transported to the courthouse lock-up. There, you were penned up with 40 or more other arrestees for many hours in dehumanizing fashion, while you waited to be brought before a judge for your arraignment. While you were probably worried about how dangerous the person next to you might be, what you remember most about the experience is the smell.
For those lucky enough to be released on a citation, your next step is appearing in court on the date and time indicated. At your arraignment, you will either be given a court-appointed counsel, or told that you do not qualify for a free lawyer based on your income. If you are given a lawyer, or have one with you, the court clerk will read the charge or charges against you, and your lawyer will enter your plea of “not-guilty.” Whether you intend to ever enter a guilty plea in your case, you will NEVER do so at the arraignment. After entering your not-guilty plea, the judge will to do two things: 1) set your next court date, known as a “status” date; and 2) advise you of your release conditions.
Following your release conditions are very important. They may include confirming your address, drug testing, staying away from a particular individual or location, or all of the above. You will immediately report to the pretrial services office following your arraignment. They will answer any questions you have about your conditions. Not following the conditions imposed by the court could result in you being held in jail while your case is pending.
At your status hearing, normally one of two things occurs. You accept a plea offer from the Government, and plead guilty to what you’ve been charged with, or to a lesser charge. Or you schedule your case for trial. Whether you plead guilty or go to trial is one of the most important decisions you will ever make, and your D.C. criminal lawyer will advise you on the pros and cons of both choices. Prior to your status hearing, your attorney will meet with you to discuss your case, and evaluate your chances of obtaining a successful outcome at trial. In some cases he will contact the prosecuting attorney and attempt to negotiate a favorable plea agreement or dismissal. Your lawyer will advise you on the best course of action, based on his or her experience, the plea offer, and the facts of your case. But ultimately, the decision to plead guilty or go to trial is yours, and yours alone.
If you choose to plead guilty at the status hearing, it is likely that you will be sentenced on that day. The prosecutor will ask the judge to sentence you in accordance with the plea agreement. Your lawyer will also recommend a sentence, that will likely be more favorable to you than what the prosecutor is requesting. The Judge will consider both sentencing arguments, and impose whatever sentence he or she feels is appropriate, based on the facts of the case and your criminal history.
If you choose to go to trial, it will likely be scheduled within 45 to 60 days from the status hearing. During that time your lawyer will prepare your defense, which includes writing any necessary motions, interviewing witnesses, and preparing cross-examination questions. Trial preparation is the key to giving you the best chance of obtaining a not-guilty verdict. Choosing a DC criminal lawyer who understands this, and is willing to put in the necessary time and effort on your case will give you your best chance at a favorable outcome.