Types of Criminal Cases in Bellingham Municipal Court
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.
Appearance in Court
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, assault in the fourth degree, harassment, indecent exposure, violation of any court order, cyber stalking, cruelty to animals, negligent driving in the first degree,
driving under the influence or physical control. 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
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
Criminal Case Procedures:
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
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
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
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.