FAQs

A person can find a criminal lawyer in Washington, DC in several ways. Many people will initially ask family or friends for a referral if they themselves don’t already have an attorney in mind or if they don’t have any experience with criminal attorneys in the District of Columbia. Another good way would be to go online and look specifically at websites and organizations that handle ratings and recommendations for attorneys. Examples would be Martindale Hubbell, Avvo, Super Lawyers, or even the District of Columbia Bar Association’s website. These will be places to start to narrow down possible attorneys that they personally want to talk to.

People can also use the Internet to specifically research any potential attorneys that they want to follow up with or schedule a meeting with. The next step would be to set up an initial meeting with any attorneys that they may be considering in order to make sure that the person is properly qualified, seems to have the proper amount of experience, and is a good fit. When hiring counsel, people should be confident that they can trust that attorney to move forward with their best interest in mind.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. There will always be an attorney out there who will agree to handle a case for a cut-rate price. Typically, the cheaper attorneys will not have the staff or the resources that a law firm has to build a solid defense in a criminal case. It is important to make sure that any attorney you are looking to retain to defend you in a criminal case has the necessary resources and experience to properly defend you against the government.

The government has nearly unlimited resources, so you should keep in mind that what you put in with regard to financing your defense is oftentimes what you’re going to get out. While you may get lucky and find an attorney who is fantastic and who also happens to have low overhead and charges a lower price, there is a lot of risk when it’s your life and liberty on the line. It is dangerous to try to find the cheapest attorney rather than the best.

Anyone who finds out that they are either being investigated or may be investigated should hire an attorney as soon as they can. It is critical to make sure that your interests are being protected as soon as possible if it appears that there may be allegations against you. The reason it’s important to have an attorney as early as possible is because the police and/or prosecutors will begin reaching out and doing their investigation.

If you don’t know what the allegations are or what they are investigating, you may agree to speak to a police officer, a detective, investigator, or prosecutor and make statements that could come back to really harm you. You are in a position where you don’t have all the facts. An experienced attorney will know how to jump in and get as much information as possible to protect your rights before you have inadvertently given information to the government that they’re going to try to use against you later.

If you know you’ve been accused of a crime, you should immediately contact a criminal defense attorney specifically located in the jurisdiction where you were accused. That means that if you are accused of having committed a criminal offense in the District of Columbia, you’re going to want to immediately talk to a criminal defense attorney in the District of Columbia. You’re going to want to make sure that your attorney has as much time as possible to insulate you and defend you from the allegation before it becomes more serious. You’re going to want to reach out and find an attorney to speak with immediately and choose an attorney as soon as you can. You want to make sure that you’ve got an attorney on board before you make any kind of statements to the police, before charges are filed, and before anything goes any further.

A felony arrest may be sealed, provided the arrest did not result in a conviction and you meet the general eligibility requirements to apply to seal your record. For example, your felony arrest may potentially be sealed if government prosecutors decline to charge you with a crime as a result of the arrest. There is, however, one exception to the felony conviction rule. A felony conviction for violation of the Bail Reform Act, commonly known as failure to appear after signing notice to return to court, MAY be eligible for sealing, depending on an analysis of your entire criminal record.

The District of Columbia does not typically have bond. Under the Bail Reform Act, they took away what most people would consider to be bond in a case.  What happens is that if someone is arrested but not released by the police, in other words they are arrested and held, they’ll be brought to court for either an arraignment in a misdemeanor case or presentment in a felony case. That would be similar to a bond hearing in the sense that it is the first time an accused person is brought before the court and informed of the charges that the government is filing against them.

The court is making a decision about whether or not that defendant will continue to be held in custody, either for a few days or for the duration of their case, or whether or not that defendant will be released with some or more conditions of release. Conditions of release could include having to report for drug testing, having to report in person or by telephone to the Pretrial Services Agency, being put on house arrest, or being sent to a halfway house.

All of those decisions occur at the initial arraignment or presentment hearing and if you do not have an attorney retained, meaning you haven’t had the opportunity to hire counsel between the time that you were arrested and that first court date, which will typically be the next business day, then the court will have an attorney present to handle that initial hearing even if you intend to hire your own counsel.

It is possible to have a misdemeanor arrest or conviction sealed in DC, but it depends on specifically what the misdemeanor charge is. There are certain misdemeanor charges that are not allowed to be sealed in the District of Columbia, for example a DUI. The City Council has decided that DUI is not an offense that they want to enable defendants to have taken off the record. There are different time frames for when an offense can be sealed or, for a lack of a better term, expunged from your record. The key will be taking a look at what the conviction is for and then checking to see whether it is eligible at all. If it is eligible, we will look at how long you need to wait.

Felonies are by definition more serious offenses, so a court would typically be more likely to impose a harsher sentence in a felony case as compared to a misdemeanor case. All things considered equal, if a person’s first offense is a felony versus if the offense is a misdemeanor, the potential penalty on the felony case is always going to be greater and the possibility that the court would impose some incarceration would be greater, on average. Every case is different, so there are times when a misdemeanor offense, even if it’s a first offense, is serious enough or the facts of the case are bad enough that the court may want to impose some jail time.

There are other situations with first offense felonies where, even though it’s a felony, the court will not impose any incarceration and simply put someone on probation. What the court will do in each individual case will depend upon the facts of each case as well as the defendant’s criminal history and other aspects of their life. In general, because a felony is considered to be a more serious charge than a misdemeanor, the courts will typically impose more incarceration or a longer term of probation in a felony case.

There is not one single DC diversion program; there are several diversion options in certain criminal cases in DC. One of the options would be a deferred prosecution agreement, which is when an individual agrees with the government that rather than go to trial or rather than plead guilty, they will perform community service and maybe some other programs that the government requests and stay out of trouble for a certain length of time. If they successfully do that, the government agrees to dismiss the case.

There is another option called a deferred sentencing agreement. That is when the defendant will actually plead guilty, but rather than be convicted, they complete community service hours and stay out of trouble for a certain length of time. When they come back, they can move to withdraw their guilty plea and the government will then dismiss the case.

There is another option called the STET docket whereby they simply agree to stay out of trouble for some length of time. If they do so then the government will dismiss the case. There are several diversion options that may be available to individuals who do not have a criminal history and are not charged with a serious offense at present.

When a judge or a court imposes a jail sentence that is suspended, that means that the amount of jail time does not have to be served by the defendant up front. That will be hanging over the defendant’s head while they are on probation. They know that if they violate the terms of probation, then they will have to serve that additional time. Oftentimes, on a first-offense misdemeanor the court might sentence the defendant to 90 days jail, but the execution of the sentence is suspended, so they don’t actually have to do any jail time unless they violate the probation.

Sometimes, for a more serious offense or a situation where the defendant has more of a criminal history, the judge may decide to sentence the person to 180 days jail with all of that suspended except for 30 days. That means the defendant will have to actually serve 30 days and the remaining 150 days will be hanging over their head. They’ll know that the judge has given them some jail time because they think that’s an appropriate punishment in this case, but they’ve also agreed to allow the defendant to serve time on probation and not have to serve that suspended time until and unless they violate probation.

A felony is by definition a more serious criminal charge than a misdemeanor. Typically a felony will have the possibility of prison time as a punishment. A felony conviction also involves the loss of certain rights like the right to vote or hold public office. Felony charges are simply more serious than misdemeanor charges and the procedure in a felony case differs from misdemeanor case in several important ways.

First of all, in a felony case there is a heightened chance that you may be held in custody for at least a brief period of time, if not during the pendency of the whole case. In a felony case, you have the right to have a preliminary hearing in which you go before a judge and the prosecution has to put on one or more witnesses to testify as to why they think there is probable cause to go forward with the charges against you. In a misdemeanor case, you don’t have that right to a preliminary hearing, so there won’t be any witnesses testifying unless the case goes to an ultimate trial.  In a felony case, after the preliminary hearing if the court does find that the government has shown probable cause, the government will still need to take the matter before a grand jury to try to secure an indictment.

Ultimately, what charges are brought against you in a felony case will be decided by a panel of grand jurors. The government presents their evidence and their witnesses in front of the grand jury and then submits the proposed indictment, but ultimately it is the grand jurors who make the decision as to what charges are appropriately filed in that case. Felony cases typically last much longer than misdemeanor cases because there is so much more on the line and there are other hearings and parts of the process that aren’t involved in misdemeanor cases.

Certain individuals may be eligible to have court-appointed free or reduced-fee defense attorneys to handle their case. If you do not qualify for that, then you would need to hire a private defense attorney. Even if you do qualify for free or reduced-fee representation, you should strongly consider hiring private counsel because when you hire private counsel, that means you are choosing which attorney is going to be representing you and defending your interests. By being able to choose your own defense attorney, you can do the research and you can make sure that you are hiring someone who has the necessary experience and knowledge to handle your type of case. You can hire someone that you can meet with and explain your situation to and get some feedback from. You can feel comfortable that this person is qualified, has your best interests in mind, and is going to be a great attorney for your defense.

When you don’t hire your own counsel and you rely upon court-appointed counsel instead, you don’t have the ability to make that choice. You don’t have the ability to research and select which attorney you think is best for you. You’re just relying on fate and hoping that you happen to have a good attorney appointed to your case. When you’re talking about the possible loss of your liberty, that is a lot to risk.

It depends on the situation, but typically, yes. If the police do not have a search warrant on hand to give to you and they ask to search your home, you absolutely can say no. If they ask to search your person or your car, you absolutely can say no. If a police officer then says, “Well, I know you said no, but I’m going to do it anyway,” don’t resist, don’t create additional problems for yourself.

Normally, they have to show that they legally have the authority to conduct that search and if you consent, you have just given them legal authority. Don’t consent. If you possibly have anything illegal or if you’ve been involved in anything illegal, you certainly don’t want to make it easy for the police to gather the evidence against you. You always have the ability to deny consent, and say, “No, I don’t give my consent.” If they got a search warrant, then they already have legal authority because it’s been issued by the court, so they’re going to do their search. If you say no to them searching the car, they very well might do the search anyway. If they don’t have sufficient cause to search your vehicle or your person without your consent, then you don’t want to give consent. You want to make sure that your attorney has the ability to challenge that search.

The potential punishment for a misdemeanor or a felony will be set forth in the statute that specifically outlines that crime. Most misdemeanors will have a penalty ranging from a small amount of jail time all the way up to one year. Felonies will typically have a punishment ranging anywhere from one year in jail to life in prison, for example for murder. All of those punishments will be set out by the statute.

When a court decides what punishment to impose in a particular case, the court will hear from the government as well as the defense. They will consider the defendant’s prior criminal history, the specific facts of the case before the court, and any other factors that come into play as far as the defendant’s prior military service, what their employment status is, what their family situation is, and things of that nature.

For felonies, the District of Columbia has sentencing guidelines and those guidelines set out a grid of the seriousness of the offense alongside the defendant’s criminal history that then determines a sentencing range. For example, a first time offender on a lower level felony such as theft or a drug offense who has no prior criminal history may be facing a possible penalty of probation with no jail time, probation with some jail time, or all prison time. As the criminal history score goes up, meaning if the defendant has several crimes in their recent history on their record, then they could be put in a situation where the judge has no other options besides prison. If the offense that they are in front of the court for is serious enough, for example rape (which is called sexual abuse in the District) or murder, then even if it is a first offense, the judge will look at the sentencing guidelines and see that prison is the only possible sentence for those offenses.

In any case, there will be a range set forth in the sentencing guidelines, for example a range of 20 to 36 months in jail. The judge would then take a look at all of the factors involved in the case, take a look at the guidelines, and make a decision as to how many months in prison to impose in that range of 20 to 36 months.

There could be several reasons for a first court date. You may have received a citation from a police officer telling you to come to court to face possible charges, you may be thinking about possibly surrendering, or there may be a warrant out for your arrest that you want to come in and handle. You’re going to want to dress professionally, look appropriate, and make sure that, if you have the ability, you hire an attorney of your choosing before your first court hearing. It is always better to have your attorney lined up right from the beginning of the case, if at all possible.

Throughout the case, the defendant always has the right to hire their own counsel, but it puts your counsel at a disadvantage if he or she is retained far along in the process. It is always much better to retain an attorney early. You also want to make sure that you have not consumed any drugs or alcohol leading up to your hearing date. You can expect to have the court order a drug test, and if you test positive for drugs or alcohol right after your first hearing, then they may make you continue to do drug testing on a weekly basis, which is something you want to avoid.

You’re going to want to make sure that you have references lined up in case Pretrial Services wants to check your address or confirm your employment or living situation. You want to make sure that you have a name and phone number of someone that you have put on notice in case someone from the court staff calls to confirm information. It is critical to make sure that you have consulted with an attorney. The criminal justice system is not someplace where a defendant should go alone.

My recommendation is always to seek the advice of legal counsel before talking to law enforcement. Obviously there are situations in which the law enforcement official is contacting a person because the person may be a witness; they haven’t done anything wrong themselves, they may just be a potential witness. Unless you are 100 percent certain that the police are not contacting you about something you have done, you are 100 percent certain that there is no allegation against you, and you are 100 percent certain that there are no possible ramifications from you talking to the police, I would have to recommend that you talk to an attorney. Because it is very rare that you would be certain of those things, my advice is to find legal counsel. There is no harm done by at least running it by legal counsel before you speak to law enforcement.

It would depend on exactly what is happening with your specific case. Once I’m hired in a case that’s already pending, my first move is to inform the court and the government that I am now the attorney of record. I will want to get a copy of any and all documents or evidence involved in the case and review them to make sure that any potential issues that need to be involved in a motion are handled as soon as possible. I would also want to get investigators working on it immediately to make sure that we have identified any potential witnesses and any potential video or audio evidence so that we can preserve that, get statements, and do everything we can to make sure that we have as much information as possible to begin mounting a successful defense.

In situations where I’m hired before a case has been filed, my first step is to get all the information and evidence that I can. If no charges have been filed, I’m going to insert myself into the government’s decision-making process as much as possible. I’m going to want to talk to the detective and law enforcement officials and talk to the investigating prosecutor. I would want to do everything I can to make sure that we have all the information and that they have the correct information when they’re making their decision as to whether or not to file charges.

There are certain times when I’m hired to replace counsel that is already working on a case. In that situation I would want to get all the information from the prior counsel. The type of case it is and the status of that case will dictate exactly what first steps I will make.

A warrant out for your arrest means that a court has signed a document directing law enforcement to apprehend you, detain you, and bring you back to court. There are two typical types of warrants. That would be an arrest warrant, which would mean that law enforcement has done an investigation and seeks to have the court issue an order allowing them and directing them to arrest you and bring you to court for the first time. There is also something called a bench warrant. A bench warrant will typically be issued by the court if you already have a pending case and you fail to show up for a court date or are in violation of the release conditions. They call it a bench warrant because a police officer hasn’t come forward to the court, but rather the court is sitting on the bench and issuing a warrant directing law enforcement to go get you.

In either situation, if you have a warrant for your arrest, you need to contact an attorney. If you already have one, get in contact with your attorney. If you don’t have an attorney, get one immediately because you face the potential that law enforcement officials are actively seeking you out to arrest you. Here in the District of Columbia, that would be the U.S. Marshals Service and these are federal officers who are possibly seeking you out at work or home, arresting you, and bringing you to court. If they are not actively seeking you out but you happen to get into any kind of involvement with police, for example if you’re driving and they pull you over for not using your turn signal, they’re going to take your information and run a warrant check. If you have a bench warrant or an arrest warrant, you’re not going home until you see a judge. If you find out that you’ve got a warrant for your arrest, it is critical that you take care of it proactively rather than waiting to be arrested at what will surely be an inopportune time for you.

A suspended driver’s license could be caused by an accumulation of points due to infractions or because of a specific conviction, for example a serious traffic offense like reckless driving or driving under the influence. It means that the Department of Motor Vehicles has suspended or revoked either a person’s driver’s license itself or their privilege to drive. The difference is that if you have a District of Columbia license, then the DC DMV has the authority to revoke your license and you won’t be able to drive legally anywhere.

If you have a Maryland license, for example, but you get into trouble in the District of Columbia such that the DC DMV wants to suspend or revoke your privilege to drive in the District, they don’t have control over your actual license but they do have control over the geographic region of DC, so they can revoke or suspend your privilege to drive in DC. It is important that a person who does have a revoked or suspended license not drive in DC because the penalty for driving on a suspended license in DC exceeds that of a DUI in terms of the maximum possible jail time for a first offense. A person who avoids jail time for a DUI but, as a result of the DUI, has a suspended license and is then caught driving in the District could potentially end up getting a worse penalty for the driving after the suspension than for the actual initial DUI. That is not a situation that you want to be facing, so I advise people that if you have a suspended license, do not drive in the District of Columbia.

The District of Columbia is a unique jurisdiction in that we have a federal prosecutorial agency handling superior court state-level crimes. We have a City Council that enacts ordinances, but we also have the U.S. Congress overseeing the laws and what’s happening in the District of Columbia. While the District of Columbia has home rule, meaning that they have their own City Council, ultimately Congress can override the laws in the District of Columbia as promulgated by the City Council. We have a unique situation where we’ve got federal prosecutors handling non-federal statutes and crimes in superior court and they’re also handling federal statutes and crimes in federal court in the District of Columbia. Then we have another agency called the Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia, which handles certain types of other criminal offenses in Superior Court in the District of Columbia. Then we also have the application of the sentencing guidelines in felony cases in the District of Columbia that don’t exist in many jurisdictions. A person’s specific criminal history is placed in a matrix along with their current offense and that generates the sentencing structure that a judge will use to impose a sentence in any case.

We also have extremely unique and harsh gun laws in the District of Columbia. Whereas in our neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland, an individual can possess and own a pistol, for example, and not necessarily have to have it registered specifically with Virginia, in the District of Columbia, you can’t possess any kind of firearm legally unless it’s registered and it’s nearly impossible to register a firearm. Even if you live in Virginia and you legally possess a handgun, if you come into the District of Columbia, you can be charged with a felony for something that is completely lawful one hundred yards away. That is pretty unique for the District of Columbia.

Very few cases involve no options as far as resolving the case short of trial or having to go to trial. In nearly every case, the government and the defense will engage in negotiation and the government will ultimately make an offer to resolve the case with some sort of plea agreement. When the government does make a plea offer, it is ultimately the defendant’s choice whether to accept it or not. In certain cases, even if the plea agreement is a good one considering the facts of the case and everything else about the situation, there are times when the defendant does not or simply feels they cannot accept the plea agreement. An example would be if someone is already on probation or parole, if they were to accept an agreement where they plead guilty to anything, they face significant punishment from the old case and not just the new one.

Ultimately, in any situation what happens is that as a defense attorney I will look at the case to find out any possible weaknesses and what the best defense for the case is going to be. There are many cases where I tell my client that we have a good defense for the case such that I think we may have a good chance at trial, but every trial has risks because ultimately you’ve got a jury or a judge making the decision as to guilty or not guilty. You have witnesses involved, you have the prosecutor, and as a defense attorney, I can do the best I can, but I’m not the jury, I’m not the judge, and I’m not the witnesses. What happens in my cases and with my clients is that we will go through the process of doing all the investigation, doing all the litigation, and doing all the negotiation until we get to a point where there is a choice. The choice will be between the best offer we’ve gotten out of the government to dispose of the case short of trial to come to a resolution, meaning an agreed upon resolution short of trial, and all the work we’ve done. I will give them my opinion on whether or not trial seems to be a good idea in their case and give them my recommendation. Then it is my client’s decision as the defendant whether or not they want to go to trial.

It is a very rare situation where the government simply refuses to do anything but go to trial. Examples of that outside of DC would be in a death penalty case, for example. They call it a capital case when the government clearly is not making any kind of plea offer and is basically saying that they think the defendant deserves the death penalty, so they’re going to trial no matter what. The death penalty doesn’t exist in the District of Columbia, so that’s not a situation that we deal with here. However, there are occasional cases where the government, for one reason or another, is not making any kind of offer and is insisting that this is a case that’s going to trial. In that situation, the defendant’s only options are to go to trial or to simply plead guilty to everything that is charged against them. It is very rare that a defendant would want to do that. It is very rare that a defendant would simply have to go to trial; it is the defendant’s choice whether or not they want to go to trial.

Typically, no, but there are exceptions. Being arrested is not typically public in the sense of being broadcast out to the public at large. Anyone who is doing a background check theoretically has the ability to find out if you’ve been arrested and charged, but they would have to be proactive about that. Unless you, as a defendant, tell your boss, it is unlikely that they’re going to immediately know that you have been arrested.

There are exceptions to that in the sense that if you work in law enforcement or one of the sensitive agencies in the District of Columbia, they very well might find out about your arrest on their own. There are many people here in the District of Columbia who work with a security clearance and they are required to notify their work that they have, in fact, been arrested and charged. Whether or not they tell their employer is ultimately their decision, but there are many circumstances where an employee will feel compelled to tell their employer. The fact that you have been actually charged with or convicted of a crime will not necessarily be known by your employer unless your employer is doing some form of background check.