Once the police are called for a domestic disturbance, the case can potentially go through seven steps before it is resolved. The following is a summary of the domestic violence criminal process in Washington State:
1. Police Response. When domestic violence is reported, there is a mandatory arrest law in Washington. This means that an officer is required to make an arrest if there is probable cause to believe that a domestic assault or other domestic violence offense was committed within the previous 4 hours, or if the officer has probable cause to believe that a no contact order was violated. Unfortunately, this normally means that an arrest is inevitable, even if a neighbor or other outside party reported the incident. The Seattle Police Department Manual on domestic violence investigations summarizes the steps that law enforcement takes in accordance with Washington State law.
2. Arrest. Once the officer determines who the aggressor was, that person will be taken into custody. Sometimes, the person who originally reported the crime is determined to be the aggressor. If the police officer believes that the accuser is trying to mislead them or recant their story, they will most likely be arrested for making a false police report or obstruction. In either situation, the arrested person will either be released after posting bail or they will be jailed until they can be seen by a judge. A person can be jailed for up to 72 hours without charges being filed.
3. Charging Decision. After the arrest, a police report is sent to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor will review the report and any witness statements before making a decision on whether or not to charge someone with domestic violence. The time frame between the arrest date and formal charges being filed can be an excellent opportunity for your attorney to contact the prosecutor. Your attorney should request a copy of the police report and conduct their own investigation. Depending on the issues in your case, your lawyer may be able to prevent charges from being filed.
4. Arraignment. The arraignment is the first court appearance after a person is charged with domestic violence. The judge will inform the defendant of their charges and the defendant will enter a plea (normally not guilty, but always consult with a lawyer before entering any plea). The arraignment is a preliminary hearing and is often times assigned to a prosecutor who will not be working on your case. This is why negotiations regarding the charge are normally not addressed at this time.
At the arraignment, a judge will most likely order the defendant to not have any contact with the alleged victim while the case is pending. This no contact order will go into effect regardless of whether or not the alleged victim wants the order in place. It is very important to have an attorney at this stage in the process, so that arguments can be made to try to prevent a no contact order from being issued.
5. Pretrial Conference. The pretrial conference is normally the first opportunity to begin formal negotiations with the prosecutor. The pretrial hearing is also an opportunity for your attorney to make a motion to lift a no contact order (if one was put in place at arraignment). Your attorney can bring to light potential legal issues and other weaknesses in the case, in order to work out a possible case dismissal or other resolution such as a reduction of the charges.
Even if there are not strong legal issues, there are other creative ways to negotiate a case. For example, it is common for the police report to inaccurately describe the events as they occurred, since police officers rarely witness domestic disturbances. Additionally, providing the prosecutor with a favorable polygraph result can be a very valuable tool in the negotiation process. If the prosecutor and defense attorney are able to work out a resolution, the case will end at this stage. If not, the case will be set for motions and trial.
6. Motions Hearing. This is an opportunity for the defense attorney to raise legal arguments and motion for certain evidence to be suppressed from trial. Examples of evidence that commonly gets suppressed are 911 phone call recordings and statements made to the police.
7. Trial. In WA State, a criminal trial can be decided by either a trial by jury or by a trial by judge (no jury). Trial is an opportunity for both sides (the prosecutor and the defense attorney) to present their case. If the prosecutor is unable to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, a not guilty verdict will be entered and the case will be dismissed. If there is a finding of guilty, the judge will impose criminal penalties that often times involve jail time, fines, and probation requirements.