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Your Criminal Case in Washington, D.C.: The Basics

It was your favorite co-worker's last day and celebratory drinks in Adams Morgan were mandatory. You thought maybe you should head home after the third bar, but got talked into a final drink down the block. In line at the club you made a snide comment about the cover charge and next thing you knew, you and the bouncer were getting into it. A police officer walked over to check out the situation and all of a sudden you were being handcuffed and arrested for threatening to do bodily harm. You knew you should have gone home. What do you do now and what comes next? Here is some basic information to help you with your criminal case in D.C.

Booking and Bail

Once you are arrested, the police officer will likely take you to be "booked." Booking is the process by which you are officially identified and your charges are entered into the system. You will likely be fingerprinted, photographed, and searched at this time.

The next concern is usually getting out. As the District of Columbia Courts' website explains, there are a few different ways a criminal defendant might be released after booking. In some cases you can be "released on citation" which means that you sign a document acknowledging your upcoming court date and the requirement that you appear. Alternatively, you may be "released on bond" which means that you provide money ("bond" or "bail") to ensure you will appear at the next court date. If you appear, the money is returned. If you do not appear, the money is forfeited.

In some traffic and low level criminal cases in Washington D.C. you have the option to "post and forfeit." Under this scenario you are not required to appear in court, but the money that you post will not be returned. This is not considered an admission of guilt by the court, but is reported to the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles.

Initial Court Appearance

Crimes are generally classified as either "misdemeanors" or "felonies." Misdemeanors are usually considered less serious crimes for which the penalties are less severe. Your first court appearance will usually be the "arraignment" (for misdemeanors) or the "presentment" (for felonies). Usually, at the arraignment the official charges against you are read, you enter your plea (guilty, not guilty, no contest), your bail may be reviewed or altered, and you are advised of the future court hearings.

Case Flow/Resolution

How your case proceeds will depend on a variety of factors, but a common resolution is by way of a plea bargain. A plea bargain is essentially a deal you make with the prosecutor that in exchange for your pleading guilty you receive a lighter sentence and/or have some of the charges against you dropped.

Another, less common, alternative is proceeding to trial. In order to be convicted, it must be determined that you are guilty of the charge(s) "beyond a reasonable doubt."

If you are found to be or plead guilty, you will be "sentenced" to a punishment that can include fines, probation, incarceration or more.

The Players

There are several organizations you will likely be dealing with in a criminal case in The District.

For example, the local police -- the Metropolitan Police Department -- will probably play a leading role. Depending on the specifics of your case, it could be prosecuted by the Office of the Attorney General if it involves specific offenses involving criminal traffic, minor weapons, quality of life, or municipal violations. Or, for other misdemeanor or felony charges, it will probably be pursued by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia.

There are two primary correctional facilities in D.C., both operated under the District of Columbia Department of Corrections: the Central Detention Facility which houses only males, including those awaiting trial, those convicted of misdemeanors and those convicted of felonies who are waiting for transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons; and the Correctional Treatment Facility which houses men, women, and juveniles being adjudicated as adults.

Your case will likely be heard in the Criminal Division of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. This division hears felonies, misdemeanors, DC code violations and criminal traffic maters. There is, however, a separate unit for criminal domestic violence cases.

Should You Get A Lawyer?

Being charged with a crime can be an emotionally charged experience and the consequences can be long-lasting. You may wish to retain a defense attorney to help you. Check out FindLaw's section on Using A Criminal Lawyer for information for defense strategies and more. If you cannot afford a private defense attorney in Washington, D.C., you may be eligible for services from the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

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