DC Criminal Lawyer
In the District of Columbia, violations of local law are prosecuted in the Superior Court. Violations of federal law are prosecuted in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Unlike most states, D.C. does not split up its court system into different counties. In addition, there is only one appellate court, which is the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. This Court acts as the state supreme court. Appeals from cases in federal District Court are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Anyone charged with a criminal offense in the District of Columbia should absolutely hire a qualified criminal defense attorney.
When someone is arrested in the District of Columbia, the first place the police take them is to the district station. The Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) has seven districts throughout the city. Once the arrestee is booked and processed, they are either released on citation for a future court date or they will be held overnight at the Central Cellblock, which is located at MPD’s headquarters. Contact for their lock up is:
300 Indiana Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 727-4222
Fax: (202) 727-2230
Getting Arrested in the District of Columbia
A typical criminal case in the District of Columbia starts with an arrest. Before explaining the process, its important to define a few key terms. A misdemeanor is a crime that has a maximum penalty of one year or less imprisonment. A felony, on the other hand, is a crime with a maximum penalty of greater than one year. For an officer to legally make an arrest for a misdemeanor in the District of Columbia, one of three things must happen. On scenario occurs where an officer witnesses the commission of a crime in his or her presence. A typical example of that is a DUI or other traffic related arrest.
Another scenario where a police officer can legally make an arrest in the District of Columbia occurs where the police obtain an arrest warrant for a person. Getting a warrant usually occurs after someone complains to the police about a crime that did not happen in front of the police. The police must investigate the crime and obtain enough evidence to show “probable cause” that the offense happened, and person accused committed the offense.
A common example of this scenario involves a simple assault where the aggressor flees the scene before police arrive. The complainant in that situation may complain to the police about what happened but the police need to have the person who committed it identified. So, typically they will try to obtain a picture of the suspect and see if the complainant can identify that person in what’s called a “photo array.” Once the officer or detective believes they have probable cause for the offense, they have to write up an affidavit in support of an arrest warrant and get both a judge and prosecutor to sign off on it.
Finally, there is a third scenario where police make an arrest without a warrant where the suspect does not commit the offense in their presence. This situation involves accusations of domestic violence. Because of special laws meant to protect victims of domestic violence, police are actually required by law to arrest anyone accused of domestic violence by someone who shares an intrafamily relationship with the suspect. An obvious example occurs where a wife calls the police alleging her husband assaulted or threatened her. In this situation, the police do not have discretion to just let the person go, they must, by law, make an arrest.
Being Charged with a Crime in DC
Felony offenses can either happen by an arrest warrant or an indictment. The process for obtaining a felony arrest warrant is similar to obtaining one for a misdemeanor. It involves the police conducting an investigation after a complaint is made and then petitioning a prosecutor and judge to sign off on an arrest warrant. One main difference between felonies and misdemeanors in the District of Columbia is that all felonies must be indicted. Getting an indictment is a process where the prosecutor must present evidence to a grand jury in secret. A grand jury is made up of about 20 members of the community and they must decide whether the prosecutor have presented enough evidence to find probable cause for the charged offenses.
When someone is charged with a misdemeanor, the prosecutors do not have to obtain an indictment from a grand jury. The prosecutor can simply proceed on what’s called a “criminal information.” That document is basically just a formal document stating the offense and the D.C. Code provision the defendant is accused of violating. As previously stated, for felonies, the prosecutors must ultimately obtain an “indictment,” which comes from a grand jury. However, police may arrest an individual for a felony based on a warrant and initiate the charge against them. They do so by the prosecutors filing a “criminal complaint.” This document serves as the charging document until the prosecutor obtains the indictment. Depending on whether the defendant is released or held in jail usually dictates how much time the prosecutors have between the defendant being “presented” on the criminal complaint and the time they must indict the defendant.
Bail in the District of Columbia
In most criminal cases, the defendant must be released if they are only charged with a misdemeanor. However, there are three scenarios in which a judge can hold an individual charged with a misdemeanor for at least five days. First, if the person has another pending case and picks up a new charge, the judge has discretion to hold them in jail. Second, if the person is on parole or probation, the judge has discretion to hold them in custody. Finally, if the person has another pending charge and is pending sentencing in that case, the judge can keep them in jail.
Because of the District of Columbia Bail Reform Act, most people charged with misdemeanors get released. D.C. outlawed cash bail many years ago and instead operates on a condition-based release system. That means while an most people charged with misdemeanors get released, its not unconditional. Judges will typically order the defendant to abide by certain conditions like report to the Pretrial Services Agency, which is a probation-like federal agency that supervises people on release. Often time, the judge will order the defendant to drug test or to abide by certain things like stay away from a particular person or a particular place. These conditions can be burdensome and, in certain situations, paternalistic.
For almost all felony charges, the prosecution can ask for a three-day hold and the judge is required by law to grant it if the judge finds probable cause for the offense. The judge will only review something called a “Gerstein affidavit,” which is the officers sworn statement setting out the facts they allege make probable cause for the offense. In almost all cases, the judge finds probable cause at the initial stage of a case. Once the three-day hold is triggered, the felony case will be set for a preliminary hearing where the judge will hold an evidentiary hearing. At that hearing, the criminal defense lawyer can again argue for the defendant’s release. In addition, the government must show probable cause for the offense but this time with live testimony—usually by the arresting officer or detective in the case.
Fighting a DC Criminal Charge
For misdemeanor cases, once the defendant is released at arraignment, the case will be set for a status hearing. In between the arraignment and the status hearing, the criminal defense lawyer should both investigate the allegations against the defendant and negotiate with the assigned prosecutor to determine whether a plea agreement can be reached. In addition, some misdemeanor cases may be eligible for something called “diversion.” Diversion is a process where the defendant enters into an agreement or contract with the government agreeing to complete certain conditions like community service or drug or mental health treatment over a period of time. If the defendant complies with the agreement and does not get arrested for another offense, the government will usually dismiss the charges.
If the defense lawyer and prosecutor cannot reach some type of agreement, then the defendant usually sets the case for trial. Most misdemeanor charges in the District of Columbia, however, are not jury demandable. That means most trials for misdemeanors are held in front of a judge who will decide whether the government proved their case against the defendant. If the judge convicts the defendant, she will also be the person to sentence the defendant. Throughout the process, a good defense lawyer will make discovery requests of the government. That means they will request the government to provide them with all the evidence that they have in their possession regarding the allegations. In addition, the criminal defense lawyer should independently investigate the allegations. Usually, legal and constitutional issue come up, which lead the attorney to file motions to suppress, motions to compel, and other legal motions.
For felony cases, if the defendant is held in jail, the government must indict the person in most cases within 90 days and get the case to trial by 100 days. If the defendant is on release, then the government has no time limit other than the principal that a defendant is entitled to a speedy trial pursuant to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Sentencing in a DC Criminal Case
If a defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor, the judge will usually sentence the person immediately after the trial or upon the entry of the guilty plea. However, if the charges involve a victim, the law requires the judge to permit the government time to obtain something called a “victim impact statement.” In those cases, the judge will usually give the prosecutor about two weeks to obtain the statement from the complainant.
For felony cases, sentencing is much more formal process. After being found guilty at trial or entering a plea of guilty, the judge will continue the case for sentencing for a few months. The reason for such a lengthy continuance is for the probation office to conduct something called a “presentence report.” The presentence report will get into the defendant’s background and criminal history to provide the judge with extensive information about the person convicted. Judges typically look at the District of Columbia Sentencing Guidelines for guidance on how to sentence defendants convicted of felonies. Its important to note that these guidelines are not mandatory.
Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney
Regardless of whether the charge is a misdemeanor or felony, its important to find and hire a qualified, experienced criminal defense lawyer if facing a criminal charge in D.C. Navigating the court system can be difficult. Criminal defendants can incriminate themselves and say the wrong thing in court or to a prosecutor. At Scrofano Law PC, we have a team of attorneys experienced in fighting aggressively for clients in the District of Columbia court system. We specialize in all types of criminal offenses, including DUI, hit and run, assault cases, gun and drug charges, solicitation, sex crimes, domestic violence offense as well as violent felonies and other misdemeanors. Contact us today for a full case evaluation. You are not alone.
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