Steps in a criminal case in the District of Columbia

Mark RollinsCriminal Law

Steps in a criminal case in the District of Columbia

Steps in a Criminal Case in the District of Columbia

Criminal cases usually start by the police observing an individual doing some kind of wrong and then arresting that person or someone else observes it and informs the police. The police will then respond to the incident. For example, if the police directly observed alleged criminal activity, they will try to apprehend the suspect and conduct an arrest. If they are responding to a report of a crime, they might show up at the scene, ask witnesses questions about what happened and who was involved, among other things. If the police officer identifies the suspect, apprehends him, and believes there is sufficient evidence, the officer will likely arrest the suspect and “book” him at the jail. Booking is where a formal report of the arrest is taken down, and where the suspect’s picture and fingerprints are taken. For misdemeanor cases, the officer may choose to issue a citation rather than booking the person into jail. In other cases, the police will conduct a longer investigation, where they will perhaps observe a person’s activities, and present the findings of their investigation to the prosecutor for a determination on whether an arrest should be made.  This is the typical process a traffic, misdemeanor, or Felony case takes in the District of Columbia.

 Citation Issued or Arrest & Booking

Initial Appearance in Court/Arraignment

  • Usually hearing within 24 hours (no court on Sunday) if defendant is held in jail.
  • Magistrate and/or Associate Judge read charges to defendant; determines if there are grounds for charge(s).
  • Constitutional rights asserted; sets conditions of release; or held
  • Counsel appointed for indigent defendants.
  • This usually occurs in courtroom C10; unless Domestic Violence (courtroom 119) or Traffic (Courtrooms 115, 116,120)

Traffic Cases

  • Charged by information
  • Case set for status (2 to 3 weeks after arraignment)
  • Diversion, plea or set for trial (if trial is set usually within 45 days)
  • Trial/Sentencing (sentencing typical done same day)

Misdemeanor Cases

  • Charged by information
  • Case set for status (2 to 3 weeks after arraignment)
  • Diversion,plea or set for trial (if trial is set usually within 45 days)
  • Trial/Sentencing (sentencing typical done same day)

Felony Cases

  •  Initial Charged by Complaint
  • Case Set for Preliminary hearing
  • Required to be held within 3 to 5 days (depends) after initial appearance if defendant is in custody/jail; within 20 days of initial appearance if not in custody, unless waived (given up) by defendant.
  • On almost all felony cases, the U.S. Attorney will seek an indictment(charged) by grand jury
  • The grand jury may consist of sixteen to twenty-three members. Twelve or more jurors must concur in order to return an indictment
  • Arraignment
  • Status (usually 3 to 4 weeks after arraignment)
  • Trial ( 4 to 5 months after status hearing unless defendant held)
  • Sentencing (2 months after trial)

 Detention Prior to Status or Preliminary hearing

  • Pending case, on parole or probation
  • The person is charged with a crime of violence or dangerous crime, obstruction of justice
  • Serious risk of flight

  Pretrial Matters

  •  Defense and prosecution continue to investigate, consult and prepare for trial even if not set for trial
  • Pretrial Services Agency usually supervise individuals on release in misdemeanor and felony cases.
  • Attorneys file motions (e.g., to exclude some or all evidence because it was obtained illegally by police; to dismiss the charges because the arrest was illegal). A judge or magistrate enters decisions on these motions (motions heard on trial day).
  • Prosecutor and defense attorney usually engage in “plea negotiations” between arraignment and status in misdemeanors.  In felony cases plea negotiations may take place at any stage.


  •  Must take place within 100 days if you are being held (this can be waived)
  • Indictable cases go to a jury trial, unless defendant requests a trial before a judge.
  • Jury trials: 12 jurors; a verdict of guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” or not guilty must be unanimous, or the judge will declare a mistrial. A prosecutor may bring the case to a jury trial again after a mistrial.


Defendants who are convicted can be sentenced to jail, prison, probation, treatment (for drugs or alcohol addiction), pay a fine and/or restitution to the victim.

 Not Every case the Same

Not every case will follow the same path, and at a lot of junctures, there will be strategic decisions that will need to be made.   At Rollins and Chan we have a wealth of experience to advise you on your choices and best options for each particular kind of criminal case.

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