Virginia criminal law is very unique. In general, the American court system is somewhat unique in that every state has its own laws and procedure that apply. Although there are Constitutional guarantees that guide the laws of each state, the states have a lot of authority to enact laws through their legislature. Laws that will be specific to each individual state.
Federal courts have a much more uniform law, but often times they too assimilate the law of the state in which they sit. So Virginia, like every other state is unique and I will address some of the more defining and characteristics of Virginia law that you may not see elsewhere.
The most notable thing that is unique about Virginia is the two-tiered court system. By that, I mean that the trial courts are split up into two separate courts– the General District Court and the Circuit Court. A misdemeanor will first be held in General District Court. That is a court “not of record” meaning there is no stenographer present. There are also no jury trials in General District Court. If someone is unhappy with the outcome of their misdemeanor trial or plea in GDC, they have an automatic right to appeal “de novo” to the Circuit Court. “De Novo” means “anew”, so —the findings and outcome of the General District Court are not binding and are viewed as if they never happened. In Circuit Court either the defendant, the court, or the prosecution can demand a jury trial. This is very unique to Virginia.
The other unique aspect of General District Court applies to felonies. There are no felony trials in GDC and GDC has no authority to enter pleas to felonies. If you’re are charged with a felony and it is either going to be a plea to the felony or a trial on the felony charge, that has to happen in Circuit Court.
Another very unique aspect of Virginia law is the “bifurcated trial” system. What this means, and I believe Virginia is one of only two states to do this, is that a trial is split up into two components: a guilt stage and a sentencing stage. During the trial on guilt or innocence, the defendant’s prior record will not and cannot be heard by the jury (with the exception of certain offenses that require a showing of prior convictions). If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the court then holds another hearing after which the jury deliberates again and recommends an appropriate sentence.
In this second sentencing hearing, evidence of prior convictions of the defendant can be admitted, and the defendant can admit evidence of mitigation. The judge is not bound by the jury’s recommendation, but he or she cannot impose a harsher punishment than the jury recommended. This is very unique to Virginia.
Additionally, Virginia is unique in that it is an old state and its criminal laws have developed throughout the past 300 years on a case by case basis. To understand what constitutes a crime, sometimes you must look beyond the criminal code, and use case law to determine what a crime really is. For example an assault and battery is not defined by the Code—the law just says that no person shall assault and batter another person. Well, many states will explain in the Code what it means to assault and batter someone. Virginia does not. To determine what an assault and battery is in Virginia, you must turn to courts’ definition that has been expounded upon and refined for the past 300 years. So that is unique in Virginia too—a reliance on common law definitions as opposed to a fully comprehensive criminal code.
Virginia also has its own rules of evidence that have also been defined by courts over history. Although the legislature has recently tried to codify the rules of evidence into one document, many of the rules of evidence in Virginia are still defined by courts that have ruled on similar issues in the past.