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How a Criminal Case Moves Through the Court System in Virginia

If you’ve just been charged with a criminal offense in Virginia, you’re probably wondering what happens next.  There are three main ways for a criminal case to begin – a summons, an arrest warrant or an indictment.

Court Summons

Most people charged with traffic offenses and some people charged with misdemeanors begin their court process by being handed a summons by a police officer.  When you are given a summons, you are are not handcuffed and taken to the jail or to the police station on that charge.

Instead, you are given a document that tells you what you’re being charged with and gives you a date and time to appear at the courthouse.  Sometimes, when a person is arrested on multiple charges, some charges may be on a summons while others are not.

Arrest Warrant for Misdemeanor and Felony Cases

Most misdemeanor and felony cases begin with an arrest warrant.  A police officer who believes he has probable cause of an offense may arrest you and take you before a magistrate to obtain an arrest warrant.

At the magistrate, the officer will give the reasons that he believes he has probable cause that you committed the crime(s).  Although the magistrate may ask you questions, you should not make any statements to the magistrate regarding the alleged offense as these may be used against you at future court hearings or trial.

Probable Cause in Virginia

If the magistrate believes that probable cause exists, a warrant will issue and the magistrate will determine whether you should be granted bond or held.  If you are granted bond and you are able to make bond, you will be given a future date and time to appear in court.  If you are not granted bond or are granted a bond that you cannot meet, you will be held in the jail until your first court appearance, which can be as soon as the next business day.

Previously Issued Warrant

You can also be arrested on a warrant that was previously issued.  In that case, a law enforcement officer has already been before the magistrate and provided grounds for probable cause and the magistrate issued the warrant.  Once this arrest warrant is issued, you are subject to arrest at almost any time.  It is a police tactic to execute these warrants at a time when they believe they will most likely find evidence of crime on or near you.

Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court or the General District Court

If you were arrested on a summons or an arrest warrant, your case will begin in either the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court or the General District Court.

If the complainant in your case is under the age of 18 or is a family or household member, your case will begin in the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court.  All other cases beginning on a summons or warrant will begin in the General District Court.  The first court hearing for criminal cases is called an “advisement”.

When to Hire a Lawyer or Get a Public Defender?

If you are in jail during your advisement and have not hired your own lawyer, a public defender may be present with you to advise you on the process and to make an initial bond motion on your behalf.

The court will ask you whether you want to see if you qualify for a free court-appointed lawyer.  In most places, this will be a public defender.  In places that do not have an established public defender’s office, this will be other court-appointed counsel.

Who Qualifies for a Free Lawyer?

In order to qualify for a free lawyer, you cannot exceed certain income limits.  If you qualify for free counsel, the court will appoint a lawyer and set a new court date,  You are to get in touch with your lawyer before the next court date.

If you are in custody, your lawyer should get in touch with you at the jail in a timely fashion.  If you do not qualify for free counsel, the court will set your case on a different date and give you some time to hire a lawyer.  Your next court date will typically be to verify that you’ve obtained counsel.  This is called a “Note Counsel Set Date”.

Misdemeanor vs Felony Cases

Misdemeanor and felony cases take two different paths in the district courts.  If you are charged with a misdemeanor, the expectation is that the case will ultimately be scheduled for trial before a district court judge.

However, some misdemeanor cases end without a trial date ever being scheduled.  This can be because the prosecutor determines that there is insufficient evidence and drops the case or because the prosecution and defense work out an alternative resolution, such as community service and/or restitution.  However, the majority of misdemeanor cases will at least be scheduled for trial.  The vast majority will never go to trial.

Electing for a Trial

If you elect to have a trial at the district court level, it will be before a judge who will decide whether the prosecution has proven your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or not.  If the judge finds you guilty, the judge will also sentence you.

If the judge finds you not guilty, the case is concluded.  Virginia uses a two-tiered trial system.  If you are dissatisfied by the outcome of your district court trial, you have an absolute right to appeal your case and to get a new trial in the Circuit Court.

Right to Appeal Your Conviction

At the Circuit Court level, you can request to have a trial by jury or by judge.  You can also request to have a jury or a judge sentence you.  If you are dissatisfied by the outcome of the Circuit Court trial, you may appeal your case to the Virginia appellate courts.

Appealing your case to the Virginia appellate court is a request for appellate judges to review the record of your case to determine whether any errors were made by the court and whether they are significant enough to justify relief.

Felony Charges in District Court

If you are charged with a felony in the district court, your case is on a path to be scheduled for preliminary hearing, which is a screening process that permits the district judge to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for the case to continue to the Circuit Court.

At a preliminary hearing, the prosecution calls witnesses to testify and may submit physical evidence to the court to show that there is probable cause that a felony was committed and probable cause that you’re the person that committed it.

What Does it Take to Show Probable Cause in Virginia?

Probable cause is a much lower standard than reasonable doubt, so it does not take a lot of evidence to show probable cause.  Your lawyer is permitted to cross examine witnesses that testify at the preliminary hearing but it is rare for the defense to put on any evidence at a preliminary hearing.

Very few cases are dismissed by the court at the probable cause stage due to the low burden of proof and limited nature of the hearing.  Additionally, even if the charge(s) were to be dismissed, it does not mean that the case is over.

The Importance of Recording Your Primilinary Hearing

The prosecution can bring the charge back, so even if a lawyer could win a probable cause hearing, it is not always advisable to do so.  Yet, the preliminary hearing can be a great opportunity to learn about the case such as how witnesses testify, where the evidence is strong, where the evidence is weak and what motions could be filed.

It also is a good opportunity to lock-in witnesses as having made certain statements for future impeachment.  Your lawyer should record the preliminary hearing.

Grand Jury for Criminal Cases in Virginia

After your preliminary hearing, assuming that the judge found that there was probable cause, the case will be certified to the grand jury.  The grand jury is a group of people who meet in private, listen to the evidence and determine whether a formal indictment should be issued on the charge(s).  Again, most cases survive the grand jury stage because only probable cause is required.

Once you have been formally indicted, your court hearings will be in the Circuit Court.  From there, you could have a variety of hearings before your trial date.  There can be court hearings to set a trial date, to say whether you would like to be tried by a judge or a jury and motions hearings (a request that the court take some action).

Guide to the Virginia Court Process for Criminal Charges

It is best that you seek legal counsel if you face criminal charges.  The trial lawyers in Leesburg VA and Alexandria VA of King, Campbell, Poretz & Mitchell, PLLC can help guide you through the Virginia court process for criminal charges.

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