Being charged with a crime can be a terrifying experience -- especially if the criminal charge is your first encounter with the legal system. This guide is intended to provide a brief and general overview of criminal procedure in Pullman and Whitman County in order to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with being charged with a crime. This guide does not address criminal procedure following DUI or Domestic Violence arrests. See my other guides for that information.
If you’re reading this, you probably received a “Summons" or “Notice of Hearing" in the mail telling you that you have to appear in Whitman County District Court. You received a summons or notice because a law enforcement officer filed a criminal citation (case numbers beginning with “C" and “CSH") or because the prosecutor’s office filed a criminal complaint (case numbers beginning with “P"). Either way, it means you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor criminal offense.
Your first Summons is for a hearing called a “first appearance." The “first appearance" is when the judge will explain the charge(s) against you and the possible penalties if you are convicted. At this first appearance, you will usually have the opportunity to talk to a public defender and a prosecutor (if you wish) about your case. You may feel some pressure to “get the case over with" at this first hearing by accepting a plea offer and pleading guilty. Before pleading guilty (even if the prosecutor is offering a “deferred sentence"), you should consult with an attorney to find out what consequences may flow from a conviction and whether any defenses may exist in your case.
If you hire an attorney before your first appearance, you won’t be required to attend the first appearance. A new hearing date will be set, and your attorney will tell you whether you need to be present at that hearing or not.
You may choose to enter a plea at your first appearance, but it is neither required nor expected. After your first appearance, if you haven’t already entered a plea, the court will set a new hearing called an “Arraignment." At your Arraignment, the judge will ask you to enter a plea. You may plead either “not guilty," “not guilty by reason of insanity," or “guilty." If you plead “guilty," the prosecutor will summarize the police report for the judge, and if the judge finds that there are sufficient facts to support the charge, the judge will “find" you guilty of the crime. Following a finding a guilty, the court will decide and announce your sentence. In the State of Washington, the maximum sentence possible for a misdemeanor offense is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The maximum sentence possible for a gross misdemeanor offense is 1 year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Also, the court may place you on probation for up to two years.
If you plead “not guilty," the case will generally be scheduled for trial. You may still change your plea to “guilty" at a later time if you so choose.