Municipal & District Courts

What are the Types of Criminal Charges in Municipal and District Court?
How Does a District Court Case Usually Begin?
What Can I Expect When I Go to Court?
Where are District & Municipal Courts?

What are the Types of Criminal Charges in Municipal and District Court?

District and Municipal Courts are courts of "Limited Jurisdiction". In general, a District Court handles crimes committed within the County outside the City's limit. The principal law enforcement agencies that cite criminal charges into District Court are the Washington State Patrol (WSP), the County Sheriffs Office (SO) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). A Municipal Court deals with crimes committed within the boundaries of a city.  While not exclusive, the principal law enforcement agency that cite criminal charges into Municipal Court will be the local City Police.  Both District and Municipal Court deal with infractions, misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Infractions and misdemeanors are defined by the maximum amount of jail and fines that a conviction or a committal will carry.

Gross Misdemeanor For a gross misdemeanor conviction the maximum penalty is 364 days in county jail and a $5,000 fine. (Examples of gross misdemeanor include DUI, Assault in the Fourth Degree, Theft in the Third Degree, Reckless Driving)
Misdemeanor For a misdemeanor conviction the maximum penalty is 90 days in county jail and a $1000 fine. (Examples of misdemeanor include Negligent Driving in the First Degree, Trespassing in the Second Degree, Disorderly Conduct, Minor Operating a Vehicle with BAC equal to or greater than .02 percent)
Infraction An Infraction is NOT a criminal charge. While both misdemeanors and infractions are cited with a "ticket" by the law enforcement officer they are very different. An Infraction is civil in nature and does not involve the possibility of jail. Infractions only have the possibility of a financial penalty. (Examples of infractions include speeding, Negligent Driving in the Second Degree, following to closely)

Notwithstanding the maximum penalties and fines associated with misdemeanor convictions, District and Municipal Courts have broad discretion in imposing anything from no jail to the maximum amount of jail and fines. In some cases, misdemeanor crimes will have statutory minimum(s) the court must impose upon sentencing. Crimes such as Driving Under the Influence and Possession of Marijuana have statutory minimum sentences upon a conviction.

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How Does a District Court Case Usually Begin?

Misdemeanor cases can begin in a number of different ways. The most common way a case begins is by "arrest & booking" or when a law enforcement officer issues you a criminal "ticket" with a court date. However, in some counties (such as Snohomish) almost all misdemeanor cases are initiated by the Prosecuting Attorney's Office through a "complaint and summons".

Arrest and Booking

If a misdemeanor crime is committed in the presence of a law enforcement officer in most cases they will have the discretion on whether they are going to arrest and take you to jail. With the overcrowding of most County jails the likelihood that you will be booked into jail becomes relatively minor, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Outstanding warrants, prior history, alcohol usage, danger to self or others will often be considerations law enforcement will exercise in their decision to either "arrest & book" or "arrest and release". However, the exception that removes an officer's discretion is domestic violence crimes. If a crime has been listed "domestic violence" and you are located within 72 hours from the time of the incident the law requires a mandatory arrest and booking into jail. In other words, if law enforcement responds to a domestic violence call and they believe there is probable cause to believe someone committed a crime, "someone is going to jail".

Arrest and Release

This is the most common situation with misdemeanor cases. Law enforcement will investigate a case then make an arrest. After an arrest is made and/or they have concluded their investigation, they proceed in two, alternative, manners.

  1. Issue You a Citiation: In this situation a law enforcement officer will release you from "custody" (arrest) with a criminal citation, often referred to as a ticket. The criminal citation will have an arraignment date on it in which you must appear in the proper court. If you fail to appear on the arraignment date a warrant for your arrest will be issued.
  2. Complaint and Summons: In this situation the law enforcement officer will release you from "custody" (arrest) or conclude their investigation and forward all their reports to the Prosecutors Office. A Deputy Prosecutor will then make the decision on whether he or she wishes to file criminal charges against you. The Deputy Prosecutor has up to 1 year to file criminal charges in a misdemeanor case and 2 years in a gross misdemeanor case. If the Prosecutor decides to file a case against you they will do so by mailing you a "complaint" and a "summons". A complaint lets you know what you have been charged with and the summons informs you of the time and place of your arraignment date.

Contesting an Infraction

If the matter being investigated by the Law Enforcement Officer does not amount to a criminal act but rather a civil violation of law, they will issue an "infraction" citation/ticket. There will be no arrest, jail or court date as the matter is only civil. However, you have options. On the back of the ticket there will be at least three different options. You have only 15 days from the date of the violation to respond on which option you wish to elect. If you don't respond within the 15 days the court will "commit" your ticket and you will owe the fine. Alternatively, within the 15 days you can choose to "commit" the ticket by mailing in a payment, mitigate the ticket (ask the judge to reduce the fine), or contest the ticket (fight it). If you fill out the ticket properly, mail it to the proper address within the 15 days and check either "mitigation" or "contest" box, the Court will mail you back court date.

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What Can I Expect When I Go to Court?

What you can expect when you go to Court will depend upon what kind of hearing you will be going to.

Probable Cause Hearing After Arrest and Booking

After being arrested you will have the right to a judicial determination of probable cause within 48 hours, unless the arrest was pursuant a warrant of arrest. In most cases you will be accompanied by a public defender, unless you had the opportunity to hire a private attorney. The court will decide if there is sufficient evidence within the police report(s) to believe that you committed a specific crime. This standard is much lower than what is required to convict you of the crime (beyond a reasonable doubt) and does not consider legal defenses. At this hearing most Courts will also address whether they will impose a bail amount or release you on your own recognizance with or without additional conditions.

Arraignment

For most individuals an arraignment hearing is the first court appearance after criminal charges have been filed. There are two issues that are addressed at this hearing.

  1. Reading of the Complaint: The court will read you the specific criminal charges that have been filed against you. They will inform you of your Constitutional rights, such as; the right to an attorney or trial. The court will then ask you to enter a plea of "not guilty" or "guilty". Almost always, a plea of not guilty should be entered so that you may have time to consult with an attorney. However, it is always advisable to consult with an attorney prior to making this decision.
  2. Determining Conditions of Release: The court will hear from all parties (prosecution and defense) on the issue of release conditions. In setting release conditions, the court will consider the likelihood that you will reappear in court or whether you pose a danger to the community. Conditions can range from not consuming alcohol or drugs, not having contact with witnesses in the case, to setting specific "bail/bond" amounts. When the Court sets a bail/bond amount, an individual will have to either post the specific dollar amount of the bail or post a bond through a bail bonds agent, in order to be released from jail.

Bail Bonds Agents

Pretrial Hearing

A pretrial hearing is set after you have been arraigned on your criminal charges. There may be several pretrial hearings between the arraignment date and a trial date. The court sets pretrial hearing to check on the status of your case and whether it is progressing adequately toward trial or resolution. The Court will verify whether all the appropriate discovery/evidence has been provided between the State and the Defense.

  1. Continuing a Pretrial Hearing: Often a pretrial hearing will be continued by your defense counsel in order to ensure that they have the opportunity to adequately prepare your defense. Preparing an adequate defense is often time consuming and may involve independent investigations, interviewing witnesses, filing legal motions, etc. Preparing a defense takes time and will usually result in continuing an pretrial hearing to a later date.
  2. Change of Plea: If a resolution in your case has been reached, often referred to as a plea bargain, a change of plea may occur at a pretrial hearing. This means that you will formally change your plea from not guilty to guilty (usually to a reduced charge). The court will review a plea of guilty form with you and set a sentencing hearing. Alternatively, if all parties are in agreement the sentencing hearing may immediately occur at the pretrial hearing.
  3. Confirming a Trial or Setting a Motion Date: As your case progresses there may be Constitutional or statutory issues that your defense attorney will raise. These issues can often favorably impact your case and sometimes result in a dismissal. However, the pretrial hearing is not the place to hear these issues. As a result, your attorney may request the court set a date for a motion hearing. This is usually done at the pretrial hearing. Alternatively, if an impasse in resolving your case occurred with the State and your case is ready for trial, your attorney will set a trial and trial confirmation date.

Motion Hearings

There are many types of issues raised at motion hearings. Usually they involve unresolved issues in your case. The defense will usually raise the issue, cite supporting case law, constitutional law, statutory authority or rules to argue your position. The State will have an opportunity to respond. However, the ultimate decision on these issues resides with the judge. It is not the time you try your case. However, it is the time you litigate over specific issues within your case. Raising legal issues in your case will often involve testimony from witnesses, yourself and the investigating officers. (Examples of issues raised are: law enforcement should not have searched my car or home, The State is withholding evidence that we are entitled too.)

Trial Confirmation / Court Date

Trial Confirmation usually proceeds the actual trial date. Often it is the week prior to the trial date. This is the date where the Court makes a final check with the Defense Attorney and the State's Attorney to see if the case is ready for trial. They will usually inquire whether all the witnesses are available and if there are any last minute legal issues that need resolving. At this time you will have probably met with and reviewed your case with your attorney on number of occasions. The actual Trial Date is when the State begins to present its case to a jury (or the bench). After the State has presented its case the defense will have an opportunity to present their evidence. Trials in Superior Court can last from a few days to months. It is a lengthy process that involves jury selection, presentation of physical and testimonial evidence, argument and finally deliberation by the jury.

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Where is District Court?

Skagit County

Island County

  • Island County District Court

    800 Southeast 8th Avenue
    Oak Harbor, WA 98277
    (360) 675-5988
  • Oak Harbor Municipal Court

    800 Southeast 8th Avenue
    Oak Harbor, WA 98277
    (360) 675-5988

San Juan County

Snohomish County

Whatcom County

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Powers & Costeck Attorneys at Law | 309 Pine Street Mount Vernon, WA 98273 | Phone: (360) 419.0809 | Fax: (360) 419.0810 | E-mail: FrontDesk@skagitvalleylaw.com

The information posted on this site is not a substitute for consulting with our legal team who will take your specific facts and circumstances into consideration when discussing your case with you.

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