The Bellingham Municipal Court has jurisdiction over criminal violations of the Bellingham Municipal Code. The Court does not exercise jurisdiction over felony cases and violations of state laws that have not been adopted by the City of Bellingham. Felony jurisdiction resides primarily in the Whatcom County Superior Court. There are two categories of criminal charges in Bellingham Municipal Court: Gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors.
Gross Misdemeanors: The Bellingham Municipal Court has jurisdiction over gross misdemeanors committed in the City of Bellingham in violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code. These criminal offenses are punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in jail and/or a fine of up to five thousand dollars. Gross misdemeanors include crimes of domestic violence such as assault and malicious mischief, serious driving offenses including driving under the influence and reckless driving, minor in possession or consumption of alcohol, and a variety of violent and property crimes that do not rise to the level of felony offenses.
Misdemeanors: The Bellingham Municipal Court has jurisdiction over misdemeanors committed in the City of Bellingham in violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code. These criminal offenses are punishable by a maximum sentence of ninety days in jail and/or a fine of up to one thousand dollars. Misdemeanor offenses include shoplifting, disorderly conduct, driving violations such as driving with a suspended license in the third degree, and other crimes.
Promise to Appear: In the majority of cases, the defendant receives a citation and signs a promise to appear at the date and time indicated on the citation. The appearance is mandatory, unless excused by the Court. However, an attorney may appear on behalf of a defendant at arraignment, and may waive arraignment, except in cases of domestic violence or driving under the influence. Failure to appear for arraignment or a subsequent court date typically results in the issuance of a bench warrant for the defendant’s arrest.
Summons: A summons issued by the Court requires the defendant to appear at the time and place specified in the summons. The appearance is mandatory, unless excused by the Court. However, an attorney may appear on behalf of a defendant at arraignment, and may waive arraignment, except in cases of domestic violence, assault in the fourth degree, harassment, indecent exposure, driving while under the influence or physical control. Failure to appear for arraignment or subsequent court date typically results in the issuance of a bench warrant for the defendant’s arrest.
Warrant: The Court may issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest. Arrested defendants are booked into the Whatcom County Jail. Jail cases are heard at 8:30 a.m. weekdays in the jail courtroom. Bail may be posted in the amount specified on the warrant at the Court during business hours and at the Whatcom County Jail after hours.
Booked Into Jail: Domestic violence offenses and some other aggravated cases result in the defendant being directly booked into the Whatcom County Jail. Arraignment usually occurs the next day, and the judge will decide upon bail or release at that time if the defendant pleads not guilty.
Arraignment: The defendant is formally charged in an arraignment. A public defender is available for consultation. If the defendant chooses to plead guilty at arraignment, the judge may sentence the defendant at this stage. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge may (1) set a pretrial conference, (2) consider any requests for the appointment of counsel, and (3) impose bail or other conditions upon the defendant’s release if the judge finds probable cause to believe the offense was committed.
Pretrial Conference: At a pretrial conference, the parties report the status of their case to the judge. If the defendant enters a plea of guilty, the court may sentence the defendant. If not, the judge will either set another pretrial conference or set the case for a readiness hearing and trial.
Motion Hearing: At any time in the course of a criminal case, either party may bring a motion. Typical motions include motions to suppress evidence, motions to modify or rescind no contact orders, motions to compel discovery, and motions to dismiss. Motions are typically noted for 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, except as otherwise directed by the Court.
Readiness Hearing: Approximately twelve days prior to any jury trial, the Court holds a readiness hearing. At the readiness hearing, the parties report that they are or are not ready for trial. If a case is confirmed for trial, a jury will be summoned. If the case is not confirmed for trial, a guilty plea will be taken or the trial date will be stricken and the case reset for further hearings or conferences. Readiness hearings are held at 1:30 p.m. Mondays.
Trial-Jury or Bench: The parties may elect either a bench trial (trial by judge) or a jury trial. At a trial, the judge or jury decides whether the City has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, the defendant is sentenced by the judge. If acquitted, the case is concluded.
Sentencing: After conviction, either by a guilty plea or by conviction at a trial, the judge sentences a defendant according to the nature of the charge against the defendant. The City, the victim, and the defense are given the opportunity to be heard at the sentencing hearing. Components of the sentence may include jail, jail alternatives, community service requirements, fines and court costs, probation, evaluations, treatment, restitution, jail tours, attendance at victim impact panels, and other conditions. The Court may also require a later review hearing to check on the defendant’s progress in treatment or a restitution hearing to determine the amount of restitution owed and/or whether restitution has been made to the victim.
Probation Hearings: If a defendant is placed on active probation, he or she will be monitored by the Whatcom County District Court Probation Department, located on the fourth floor of the Whatcom County Courthouse, 311 Grand Avenue, Bellingham, phone (360) 676-6708. If the probation officer notifies the Court that the defendant has allegedly violated the terms of the defendant’s probation, the Court will set a probation hearing. At the first appearance on a probation violation, the defendant is advised of his/her rights and either admits or denies the alleged violation of probation. If the violation is denied, a second hearing is held in which the Court determines if the defendant violated probation. Violation of probation may result in the imposition of suspended sentences and other sanctions. A defendant may also be placed on “bench probation,” in which case the Court will monitor the defendant to ensure that he or she has not been convicted of further offenses while on probation and has not violated the other sentencing requirements.
Diversion and deferred prosecution: For some crimes, some defendants may be eligible for a diversion or deferred prosecution. If the defendant successfully completes the diversion or deferred prosecution by complying with all of the terms imposed by the Court, the court case is dismissed. Failure to comply with all terms may result in revocation of the diversion or deferred prosecution, conviction for the original offense, and sentencing.
Information for Crime Victims: Victims of crimes prosecuted in the Bellingham Municipal Court should contact the Victim-Witness Advocate at the Bellingham City Attorney Criminal Division for assistance. The Advocate can provide referrals, information, and other assistance to crime victims. The Advocate may also provide assistance in setting hearings concerning no contact orders or the setting of restitution. Crime victims are welcome to attend Court, to submit written victim impact statements, and to participate in sentencing hearings.
No Contact Orders and Anti-Harassment Orders: In many cases, particularly in cases of domestic violence, the Court may order the defendant not to have contact with an alleged victim or other persons involved in his/her case. Orders are typically issued at arraignment and sentencing. Only the Court may modify or rescind such an order. Victims asking the Court to rescind, issue, reinstate, or modify a no contact order or anti-harassment order should contact the Victim-Witness Advocate at the Bellingham City Attorney Criminal Division.
Jurors: The Court greatly values the role of jurors in our judicial process, and appreciates their participation. Any jurors with questions or concerns about their service in Bellingham Municipal Court should contact the Jury Coordinator at (360) 676-6779.
Applying for assigned counsel (“public defenders”): The City of Bellingham does not have a public defender’s office, but instead contracts with local private attorneys to provide legal services to indigent criminal defendants. Immediately following the arraignment, defendants may apply to the Court for the appointment of counsel at public expense, but may be required to pay some of the attorney cost if convicted.