They’ve arrested the alleged thief who burglarized my home. Now what?
“With residential burglaries and other property crimes very much in the news, many questions are coming up about prosecuting these cases,” said Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell, who addressed a group of 20 citizens at the Edmonds Library Plaza Room on Wednesday evening. “We hope to answer some of these tonight.”
Cornell’s presentation was a direct outgrowth of the recent Edmonds Police Department open house focusing on residential burglaries and how you can protect yourself from being a victim. While that open house was aimed at how to secure your home and other practices to stay safe, it raised questions about what happens after an arrest and how suspects are prosecuted, brought to trial, and sentenced.
“We’re here tonight to pick up where the police forum left off,” explained Cornell. “We’ll be talking about how we in the Prosecutor’s Office do our work, and how these cases move through the system.”
Cornell then introduced Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (and Edmonds resident) Andrew Alsdorf, who heads up the Prosecutor’s Office Non-violent Division, to explain the process (details on PowerPoint presentation here).
“Most burglaries of buildings and residences are non-violent,” he explained, “and response typically begins with a police investigation.”
First police are dispatched to the scene, often prompted by a 911 call. The police talk to those there (such as witnesses and the homeowner), gather evidence, determine whether a crime has likely been committed, and try to identify a suspect or suspects. If this initial investigation results in a determination that there is probable cause to believe that a suspect committed the crime, the police can make an arrest and prepare a report that will form the basis of a charging decision.
If an arrest is made, Washington State law mandates that bail be immediately set at $5,000 and that the suspect is entitled to an initial probable cause hearing within 24 hours. At this hearing the law requires the judge to presume that the suspect will be released on personal recognizance while the prosecutor prepares formal charges.
“It’s the prosecutor’s job at this hearing to argue against release if we feel warranted,” said Alsdorf. “These arguments will include things like past criminal history, a history of not showing up for hearings, or the likelihood that the suspect would commit a violent crime while on release. But remember, residential burglary is not a violent crime, and the judge would not consider holding a suspect based on the likelihood of committing a burglary.”
The judge then decides whether to hold or release the suspect, and the prosecutor begins the process of preparing charges.
Alsdorf then went on to explain the different types of burglary and how the law views them.
Least egregious is criminal trespass, where a person enters a building but there is no evidence of intent to commit a crime against a person or property, such as a homeless person seeking shelter. Next up the scale is second-degree burglary, where the defendant enters a building with the intent to commit a crime against a person or property. Residential burglary is more serious, in that the defendant enters not just any building, but a dwelling. Lastly, first-degree burglary is where the defendant is armed with a deadly weapon or assaults a person during commission of the crime.
“In preparing formal charges, the prosecutor is bound to follow a much stricter standard of proof that goes well beyond probable cause,” Alsdorf explained. “While probable cause is enough to justify arrest and search warrants, we have to show ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the suspect committed the crime. Deciding beyond a reasonable doubt is hard, and it should be. Not all countries’ legal systems have this standard. It’s part of what it means to be free in America.”
To establish this, prosecutors go back to the police, interview witnesses, and sift through evidence to bridge the gap between probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt.
“In some cases, the evidence is simply not strong enough to establish this,” he continued. “In these instances, we will decline to bring charges and the suspect will be released.”
But if the prosecutor can meet the higher standard and brings formal charges, the suspect is arraigned in open court where he or she enters a plea and the judge sets a trial date (in the case of a not-guilty plea) and determines whether to release on personal recognizance or set bail. Except in rare cases, the suspect has the option of meeting bail by posting bond through a bail bonding agency, where the suspect pays the bonding agent a fee — usually 10 percent of the bail — for which the agent agrees to post bond with the court for the full amount.
Cornell then took over the microphone to begin explaining what happens next.
“Many cases resolve by a guilty plea,” he explained. “Often this is the result of the person truly coming to terms with what he/she has done. Sometimes it’s because of a plea bargain agreement by which we offer a less severe penalty. In addition to moving the case forward, plea bargains also offer a chance to resolve the case when we’ve not been able to strongly establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and thereby avoid the risk of not prevailing at trial. Another factor is that once a person pleads guilty, they give up their right of appeal, which they would have if the case went to trial.”
Cornell then introduced Deputy Prosecutor Kathleen Laudencia, who is part of the Prosecutor’s Office Trial Unit.
She explained that before trial begins, the defendant will have the chance to file pre-trial motions, the goal of which is to suppress evidence. This is usually based on arguments that police violated a constitutional right in conducting searches, obtaining warrants, and exacting confessions.
“There is always the chance that a judge will rule inadmissible certain evidence critical to establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “Depending on just how critical this evidence is, it could make our case untenable.”
Once these motions have been resolved, the case moves to trial. Before the trial begins, the deputy prosecutor will meet with witnesses and inform them of what to expect.
“We don’t coach witnesses or tell them what to testify,” she cautioned. “Our best advice is to show up on time and tell the truth. The last thing we want is a mistrial stemming from improper actions with witnesses.”
At trial, witnesses will respond to direct, usually open-ended questions (who, what, where and how) and during cross examination to more close-ended question generally answerable by yes or no.
“Cross examination can be intimidating,” she added, “which is why our prime advice to all witnesses is to simply tell the truth no matter how messy it may be.”
At the conclusion of the trial the defendant is judged guilty or innocent, and the judge will typically set a date for sentencing.
Washington State has established a complex set of sentencing guidelines that provide standard sentencing ranges determined by a combination of factors including the severity of the crime, the circumstances of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history. In addition, the law provides for the judge to go beyond the standard guidelines if certain aggravating factors are present, such as a particularly vulnerable victim, sexual motivation, use of a firearm, and if the crime was committed while the defendant was on community custody (formerly called parole) for a previous offense. Details are in the accompanying PowerPoint.
Questions from the audience included whether a victim can press charges.
“On television dramas we often hear a victim saying, ‘I want to press charges,’” said Cornell. “That’s not how it works. Victims don’t press charges; the Prosecutor’s Office does. This can work both ways — for example in cases of domestic violence where a crime has been committed but for personal reasons the victim is reluctant to come forward. We as prosecutors make that decision.”
More information on the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office is available here.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel