The criminal court system in Virginia has different levels of court and what level court you interact with depends on what charges are being brought against you. At the bottom of the court system is either the General District Court or the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. If a person is over 18 and the charges do not involve somebody in their household or a juvenile, then the case will go before the General District Court. This is the lowest level in the system and is the court that most Virginians actually have contact with.
At each level of the court system, a person should look to their Alexandria criminal defense attorney for any questions during their trial. Criminal cases are not always cut and dry; there are often complications that may arise. Someone who is facing criminal charges for the first time will likely want the reassurances
In Alexandria General District Court, the court has jurisdiction and hears traffic violations or other misdemeanors. Misdemeanor cases are those that come with conviction penalties of up to twelve months in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. The General District courts are not courts “of record,” so the proceedings are not recorded. An Alexandria criminal attorney can ask the judge and will be allowed to record the proceedings for the client, but otherwise what happens won’t be on the record. Proceedings are not recorded because the General District Courts are considered less formal than other courts like the Circuit Court. General District Court also does not have a jury trial so all cases are heard and decided by the judge. This is known as a bench trial.
General District Courts also hear the first step in a felony case, called the preliminary hearing. A felony is any charge that would result in at least one year in jail. A preliminary hearing in the felony cases determines whether or not there is enough evidence and probable cause in a specific case. If there is, the case moves to the grand jury for certification, and then up to Circuit Court for trial. Circuit Court is the level above General District Court and is for felonies or for appeals from the lesser crimes heard in district court.
In the Circuit Court, a person is entitled to either a jury trial or a bench trial in front of a judge and for a misdemeanor appeal, a person is able to have a jury trial even though they were not able to have it in the General District Court. A jury trial for a misdemeanor appeal will have seven jurors. If someone is in the Circuit Court for a felony case and decides to have a jury trial, then they will be able to have twelve jurors.
If there is an appeal from the General District Court up to the Circuit Court, it is as though the Circuit Court is hearing the case for the first time because there is no record in the General District Court. An appeal from the General District court up to the circuit court is what we called “de novo appeal” which means it is heard fresh, so the judge will not be able to hear the evidence or see the evidence that was presented previously. It allows someone a fresh start.
From the Circuit Court level, a person then has the potential to appeal their case up to the Virginia Court of Appeals with the help of their Alexandria criminal attorney. The Virginia Court of Appeals is not an appeal by right for criminal purposes, which means a person does not have the right to appeal a case up to the Virginia Court of Appeals automatically. Instead, they would petition to have the case heard.
The Virginia Court of Appeals can hear a variety of appeals from final orders of conviction in criminal cases to traffic cases. They do not, however, hear death penalty cases. They can also hear certain rulings when appealed by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.
The last level is the Virginia Supreme Court. The Virginia Supreme Court is where cases are appealed after being heard by the Virginia Court of Appeals or where you would appeal death penalty cases that came from circuit court. The Virginia Court of Appeals has the jurisdiction and the ability to hear appeals from any decision that the Virginia Court of Appeals makes.
The court system in Virginia can be a complicated organization. One extremely important fact to know about the system is that everything that happens in court is very time-sensitive. Whether it is filing for an appeal, paying a fine, filing a motion (which your attorney would do on your behalf) or finding witnesses and asking the court to issue a subpoena for the witnesses, these things have to be done within the time that is designated by the court. If these things are not done on time, a person might lose the right to take advantage of these important elements of the defense and these important tools could help someone and their attorney create a defense. To further complicate matters, each jurisdiction has its own local rules about time limits and deadlines.
It is also important to understand that the payment of court costs and fees can have ramifications beyond that the legal system. If you do not pay your fees and cost, the court can actually suspend your driver’s license, impose part or all of a suspended sentence, or fine you guilty if payment of the court costs was originally part of a plea deal. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle will also suspend your license as an administrative suspension for failure to pay court cost and fees.
The courts will often allow a person to set-up a payment plan which they can work out with the clerk, or an attorney can ask the judge for additional time to pay for their clients. It is important to know that non-payment of a court cost and fees can have a very serious effect on a person’s life.
Something else to be aware of is that not everyone has the right to an attorney. In situations where someone is facing a misdemeanor or a traffic offense, an individual does not have the right to an attorney if the prosecutor has decided not to seek jail time. For individuals who cannot afford an attorney or who thought that they would have an attorney appointed to them, if a commonwealth attorney is not seeking jail time, they are not entitled to one so they are going to have to make separate arrangements in advance or ask family or friends to help them to find an attorney or they won’t have somebody advocate on their behalf.