Information on Criminal Defense

Important Things to Remember:

If you are contacted by the police regarding a crime, whether it is a traffic offense or a felony, it is essential that you always keep the following things in mind...

  1. The police are not contacting you to be friendly or to help you. They are contacting you so that you can help them do their job. Their job is to charge and/or arrest people they believe have committed crimes. If they are contacting you it is because they believe that you either committed a crime or know about someone else committing a crime. If you have any reason to think that you may have committed a crime or could be suspected of committing a crime, you should not speak with any policemen, deputies, investigators, or detectives without consulting your attorney. In dealing with the police, you should be polite and cooperative. You are required to answer questions about where you live and your name and identifying information. However, once the police begin asking you questions about specific events, incidents, or items, you should politely tell them that you want to help them with their investigation, but that you want to talk to your attorney first. You do not have any obligation to speak with the police before you have had the chance to consult your own lawyer.
  2. If you have been charged with a crime, and if you believe that you are guilty; you still have no obligation to discuss the crime with the police. You should still consult with your attorney before making any kind of statement to the police. Many seemingly minor crimes have very harsh penalties which can be lessened or avoided if the prosecutors and police believe that they have to work hard to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Until you have spoken to your attorney, you do not have enough information to make the decision about cooperating with the police.
  3. If at any time, at any place, a police officer asks you for permission to search your person, your home, your car, you should politely refuse. If an officer is asking for your permission, he believes that he does not have the right to search. If he does not have the right to search without your permission, he does not have the right to force you to let him search. Even if you believe that you have nothing illegal for the officer to find; NEVER, EVER agree to let an officer search anything. You may not have anything illegal, but you don’t know what your friends, family or acquaintances may have left in your home or car.

Criminal Procedure:

All criminal cases in Virginia will follow certain basic steps. The first of these occurs when a warrant, a summons, or an indictment is issued against you. If you receive a warrant or a summons, your first court appearance will be in a General District Court or a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

This first appearance is called an arraignment. You will be taken before a Judge and the Judge will advise you of the charge against you and whether or not you have the right to an attorney. You have an absolute right to have an attorney represent you. If the charge carries the potential for jail time, and if you cannot afford an attorney, the Court will appoint one for you. If you have already hired an attorney, you should tell the Judge about this fact when he or she asks about your plans for representation.

After the Judge resolves the issue of who will be representing you, he will set a date for you to return to court. In misdemeanor cases this will be the date of your trial. In felony cases, this will be the date for your preliminary hearing. It is also possible that the Judge will set a date for you to inform the Court about whether or not you have hired an attorney.

If you are still in jail at the time of the arraignment, the Judge may also consider holding a brief hearing to determine whether or not you should be released on bail. Generally, this will only happen if you have an attorney present in Court with you on the day of the arraignment.

If you are returned to jail after the arraignment, you are entitled to request a hearing to determine whether you should be released on bail. These hearings are usually scheduled within a week of the arraignment, depending on the availability of your attorney and the Court’s schedule.

If you have been charged with a felony, the next step in your case will be the preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, a General District Court or Juvenile or Domestic Relations Court judge will hold a hearing to determine whether there is probable cause that a crime occurred and probable cause that the person charged committed the crime. Probable cause is a very low standard of proof. In layperson’s language the Judge has to answer the following question: Is it possible that a chain of events happened that constitutes a crime, and if so, is it possible that the defendant is the person who committed the crime? If the Judge can answer yes to both parts of this question, he or she can find that there is probable cause. After the finding of probable cause, your case will be certified to the Grand Jury, which is required to return an indictment against you. Your case will then be scheduled for trial in Circuit Court.

If the Judge does not find probable cause, then the case will be dismissed. The Commonwealth’s Attorney may still seek to have you indicted directly by the Grand Jury, even if the felony charge is dismissed in the General District Court or the Juvenile Court.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor, your trial will be held in the General District Court or the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. You will be tried by the Judge, without a jury. At your trial, the Judge is required to find you “not guilty” unless the Commonwealth proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you are guilty. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is generally defined as proving the case to the point that a reasonable person would have no doubt that the crime occurred and that the defendant was the person who committed the crime. During the trial you (or your attorney) may ask questions of the witnesses who testify against you, raise objections to the evidence used against you, call witnesses of your own and present evidence of your own.

If you are found “not guilty” of the misdemeanor, the case is over and you may never again be tried for the same alleged offense. If you are found guilty, the court will decide upon a punishment. Misdemeanors in Virginia are punishable by a maximum penalty of twelve months in jail and/or a $2,500.00 fine. Some misdemeanors, such as certain types of DUI charges and driving suspended charges carry mandatory minimum jail sentences which must be imposed if you are found guilty.

If you are not happy with the result of your misdemeanor trial, you have the right to appeal the case to the Circuit Court. If you appeal the case, you are entitled to a new trial in front of the Circuit Judge. You may also request that you be tried by a jury if the misdemeanor charge carries the potential for jail time.