The Washington State Court Criminal System
Being charged with a crime in Washington State, or anywhere else for that matter, is not a fun experience. It is invasive and accusatory, with serious penalties at stake. Luckily it’s a process many people will never experience. But you may. Or a family member. In any event, you help yourself and the people you care about if you understand how our criminal court system is set up.
We have two categories of courts in Washington: State and Federal. Federal courts deal with federal action, e.g. federal crimes and federal lawsuits. Federal crimes include white-collar action, bank robbery, terrorism, and some drug offenses. I don’t have exact figures, but it’s at least 100x more likely to be charged in state court than federal. Thus this post will be focusing on the Washington State system.
That system is broken down into categories. At the bottom are the municipal courts and district courts, i.e. city courts and county courts. These are called Courts of Limited Jurisdiction because they are not authorized to preside over every single possible case. In the criminal realm they have jurisdiction over only misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.
What defines a misdemeanor versus a felony? It’s simple enough, crimes receive their classification based on the maximum sentence a judge could impose. A misdemeanor has a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine, a gross misdemeanor has up to 365 days in jail and a $5,000 fine, and anything that could result in over a year in prison is classified as a felony. Felonies are broken into three sub-categories. Ranging from least serious to most, felonies are either Class C, Class B, or Class A felonies.
So back to the courts. Above the limited jurisdiction courts is Superior Court. Superior Court is simply a court that can hear any case, felony or otherwise. But while Superior Court can hear misdemeanors, they choose not to, because otherwise they would be swamped in more minor cases, while the lower courts would have nothing to do. So arrangements are set up to distribute the cases based on what is being charged, and where the incident took place.
For example, let’s say you were pulled over because the police officer thought you were drinking and driving. If you were on a local street in Seattle and pulled over by Seattle Police, say in Belltown, you would likely be charged with DUI in Seattle Municipal Court. But if you were driving on I-5 and pulled over by the Washington State Patrol, you would likely be charged in King County District Court.
Is there a difference? Legally there’s no difference between the courts, what the prosecutor has to prove to convict are the same. Functionally though, each court is staffed with different prosecutors, different judges, and has different procedure for defendants. What’s effective in one court may be completely ineffective in another.
Now let’s say you were charged with Trespass, and were found guilty by a jury. Let us also suppose you believe the trial was an unfair one, and that unfairness was the reason you were convicted. A criminal defendant has the option to appeal. This is an appeal as a matter of right, which means the next higher court is required to review your case, if you go through the appeals process. The appellate process is a complicated one, and is a post for another time. Do note that if the prosecution loses a jury trial, they have no right to appeal, as that would violate the constitutional protections of the 5th Amendment (Double Jeopardy).
For courts of limited jurisdiction, the Defense’s appeal goes to Superior Court. For felony cases, i.e. cases originating in Superior Court, the appeal goes to the Court of Appeals.
There are three Divisions of Courts of Appeals in Washington. Division One is in Seattle, Division Two is in Tacoma, and Division Three is in Spokane. Where does your case go? It depends on where the original court is located. Here’s a handy map with the breakdown.
Those courts are strictly an intermediary court, and thus do not hear trials. They are designed to review cases below and determine whether that court was acting correctly. If you lose at the Court of Appeals, you have the right to petition the Washington Supreme Court for what is called discretionary review. This means the Supreme Court may decide to review your case, but does not have to. If they decline to hear it, your case is basically over unless you can obtain review from the United States Supreme Court (extremely unlikely if your case isn’t even interesting enough to review from your own state’s highest court). One exception is death penalty cases, where a conviction is automatically appealed to the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s job is similar to the intermediary levels, i.e. review the lower court to make sure the trial is a fair one.
Keep in mind this discussion relates to criminal matters. Civil cases are similar, but have different rules, and sometimes different progressions. For more reading about the Washington Court system, check out the official link.
Remember if you are charged with a crime, you can schedule a free consultation to discuss your options with the Law Office of Noah Weil. The stakes are high so make sure you have all the information!