Arraignment in Washington

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Washington law places strict time requirements on law enforcement officers in getting people they’ve arrested to court. The laws are designed to insure arrestees aren’t held in custody without probable cause and that they fully understand their rights.

(For more on first court appearances, see Arraignment: Getting to Court.)

Probable Cause

Generally, within 48 hours of arrest, a judicial officer must make a determination that law enforcement had probable cause to arrest the defendant (weekends and holidays may be included in the 48-hour time period). The 48-hour time limit doesn’t apply if the court found probable cause (for example, through issuance of an arrest warrant) before the arrest took place.

The probable cause determination doesn’t mean that the defendant gets in front of a judge within 48 hours—the judicial officer can make a determination based on affidavits from police officers and other evidence, much like he or she would in deciding whether to issue an arrest warrant. (WA St. CR Ltd. Juris. CrRLJ 3.2.1.)

Getting to Court

Many times, the defendant is released from custody before appearing in court and given a date and time for the first appearance. But if the authorities don’t release the arrestee from jail, they must take him or her before a judicial officer before the close of business following the day of arrest. At that time, the court decides whether the person must remain in custody or be released and sets conditions for release. (WA St. CR Ltd. Juris. CrRLJ 3.2.1.)

Which Court?

Washington functions a little differently than many states in that it has distinct district and superior courts.

District and municipal courts have authority over misdemeanor crimes, which are punishable by one year or less in jail. Generally, the district court is responsible for determining:

  • whether probable cause exists upon arrest
  • whether the defendant should be held in custody or released, and
  • what conditions to impose if the defendant is released.

Superior courts handle all felony cases, though district courts do hear preliminary (or probable cause) hearings in felony cases. If, through the preliminary hearing, the district court determines that probable cause exists to believe the defendant committed a felony, the case is bound over for arraignment in the superior court. But the prosecution is free to avoid the preliminary hearing entirely by simply filing an information in superior court. (State v. Ollison, 68 Wash.2d 65 (1966).)

Ultimately, within 72 hours (not counting weekends or holidays) of a defendant’s detention in jail, the state must file charges. If it doesn’t, the court must release the defendant from custody. (WA St. CR Ltd. Juris. CrRLJ 3.2.1.)


A defendant who is in custody must be arraigned within 14 days after the filing of charges. (WA St CR Ltd Juris CrRLJ. 4.1, WA St CRR 4.1.) The court must advise the defendant of the right to counsel. (Friedbauer v. State, 51 Wash. 2d 92 (1957).)

At arraignment, the defendant typically enters a plea. (See How should I plead at arraignment?)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you’ve been arrested, regardless of whether you’ve been to court yet, consult an experienced local criminal defense attorney. Only such an attorney can fully explain the nuances and complexities of the rules and how they affect your situation.

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