Virginia's unified district court system consists of the general district and the juvenile and domestic relations district courts. Within the 32 districts of the state, there are general district courts and juvenile and domestic relations district courts in every city and county.
The General District Court hears all criminal cases involving misdemeanors under state law and offenses that are violations of ordinances, laws, and by-laws of the county or city where it is located. A misdemeanor is any charge which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500, or both.
The Code of Virginia defines criminal offenses and sets penalties. For many offenses, the penalty described is a fine. Fines collected for violations are paid into the treasury of the city, town, or county whose ordinance has been violated, or into the State treasury for a violation of state law. The district courts do not conduct jury trials. All cases are heard by a judge. Each defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon consideration of evidence, the judge decides the question of guilt or innocence and on a finding of guilt determines which penalty, if any, is proper and lawful.
The general district court decides civil cases in which the amount in question does not exceed $25,000. Civil cases vary from suits for damages sustained in automobile accidents to suits by creditors to receive payment on past due debts. In Virginia, claims for less than $4,500 can be initiated only in general district courts. A separate small claims division has jurisdiction over civil actions when the amount claimed does not exceed $5,000.
The general district court also hears cases in which a person is charged with a traffic infraction. If convicted of certain traffic violations, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles will assess points against the person's driver's license. This is in addition to any fine imposed by the judge. The general district court holds preliminary hearings in felony cases, that is, any offense which may be punishable by imprisonment of more than one year. At a preliminary hearing, the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to justify holding the defendant for a grand jury hearing. The grand jury determines whether the accused will be indicted and held for trial in the circuit court.