Because the criminal court process stems mostly from the U.S. Constitution, the systems are similar in all states. There are slight differences, though. Here's an overview of what happens in Washington State.
In Washington, people can be arrested if there is good reason, or probable cause, to believe they committed a crime. Most of the time an arrest comes after a law officer has gathered evidence and asked a judge for an arrest warrant. If the officer witnesses a crime, though, he can arrest a suspect on the spot.
Officers must give suspects their Miranda rights, the two most crucial being that they have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent.
Cases can be thrown out later if suspects aren't advised of these Constitutional rights before questioning begins.
Suspects are then booked at a police station or other detention facility after an arrest. Here they are fingerprinted and photographed, and valuables such as cell phones and credit cards are taken and stored. In minor cases, suspects will be allowed to post bail immediately after booking.
In Washington, the first court appearance is for an arraignment, where a district judge formally reads the charge and asks the defendant to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The judge will also set or review bail. The hearing must be held within 48 hours of the arrest, including nights and weekends if the suspect has not yet been formally charged, and within 72 hours if he has been charged.
At the preliminary hearing, prosecutors must present enough evidence to show there was probable cause for the arrest. If the judge agrees, the case is bound over to the trial court. Bail can be reviewed again at this step.
Making a Deal
The vast majority of criminal cases in Washington never go to trial. Instead, the defendant will agree to plead guilty or no contest to a lesser charge or in exchange for a lighter sentence. Judges are not required to abide by plea agreements.
Preliminary and Grand Juries
Washington criminal cases go from preliminary hearings to superior court trials. Grand juries are extremely rare and usually are used only for special investigations.
Defendants can appear before a judge if both sides agree, though most felony cases are tried before juries. At the trial, both sides present evidence and arguments, and the jury or judge decides if the prosecutor has proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If all jurors can't agree on some charges, a mistrial will be declared and those charges can be tried again later before new jurors.
The state has sentencing guidelines that set a range for prison terms for most crimes. In some cases, mostly misdemeanors, judges have great discretion. In felonies and drunk driving cases, judges have less leeway.
Consult a Lawyer
This article outlines Washington's criminal justice system. If you're accused of a crime, contact a local attorney as quickly as possible to get the best advice for your specific situation.