Traffic and Criminal Court Procedures
The courts in Virginia have very strict procedures that will be followed in every case. These procedures will vary depending on the type of case that you have.
FELONY CASESFelony cases generally start out with in the General District Court. Generally if you are charged with a felony you will be taken into custody. The magistrate may or may not release you on bond. If you are not released on bond you are taken before a General District Court judge for arraignment the next available court date. At that arraignment the judge will advise you of the next step in the process which is an appearance for a preliminary hearing. The judge will also set a bond in the case and determine if you are eligible for a court appointed attorney to represent you or whether you will have to retain counsel. In some serious cases the court may choose not to set a bond and require you to be kept in jail until there is a disposition in the case. You have a right to file a separate bond motion to have a bond set. This is usually done by a lawyer on your behalf. If the court still refuses to set bond you have the right to appeal this decision to the Circuit Court.
After the arraignment you will appear at a preliminary hearing in the General District Court. At that time your attorney will be given preliminary information about the facts in your case. At that time you will be given one of three choices in the case. First it my be found that there is not enough evidence to go forward with the case and the charge or charges may be dropped. Second, your lawyer may negotiate a settlement of the charge or charges for a pre-agreed outcome. Third, you may take the case to a preliminary hearing for a judge to determine if the case should be sent to the Circuit Court for a trial. This is a critical stage of your case. Decisions made at this point may irreversibly effect the future direction and outcome of the case.
If the charge is dropped at the preliminary hearing this may end the case. The Commonwealth*s Attorney also has the option of taking the case to the Grand Jury for an indictment even if it was dropped at the preliminary hearing. If that is the case you will continue the case in the Circuit Court and by-pass any further proceedings in the General District Court.
If the case is certified to the Circuit Court there are generally one of two ways the case will proceed. First the defendant may enter a plea in the case in which case the matter will be set for a plea date followed by a separate date for sentencing by a Circuit Court judge. Second the matter may be set for a trial date. The trial may be with or without a jury. Both the Commonwealth and the defendant have a choice as to whether a jury will be used at the trial.
Before trial there may be motions that must be addressed by the court. Some of these motion may be a motion to suppress evidence, motion for a separate trial if there are co-defendants or a motion to suppress statements or confessions. These are only a sample of the possible motions that may arise in a case.
At trial, you may or may not have a jury. The case will be decided by the judge is there is no jury or by the jury itself. If you are found not guilty the case is over. If you are found guilty there will be a sentencing hearing by the judge if the judge determined your case at trial. If you have a jury trial the jury itself will determine your sentence. In either event there will be a separate sentencing hearing where the trial judge will formally sentence you.
This is usually the end of the case, however, there may be other post-trial motions needed in certain types of cases.
TRAFFIC AND MISDEMEANOR CASESUsually after being charged with a traffic offense you will be issued a summons to appear in court. For some traffic offenses you may actually be taken into custody such as in the case of a DWI. If you are released on a summons and not taken into custody your first appearance in the court will be for trial. There are some exceptions to this rule. In accident cases and in some other instances there may be a requirement for a second appearance. Otherwise, your first appearance will be for the purpose of entering a plea or to conduct a trial. If the court finds you guilty there will be a penalty imposed which may involve a fine and court costs and could involve the imposition of jail depending on the nature of the offense. The maximum fine in this court is $2500.00. The maximum jail that can be given on each offense is 12 months. In addition there are court costs that must be paid and can not be waived by the court.
If you have been incarcerated as a result of an offense you will be taken to the magistrate after your arrest where the magistrate has the option of releasing you on your promise to appear in court, or, you may be given a bond that must be paid to ensure your appearance in court. The magistrate also has the option of refusing to issue a bond in which case you will be kept in jail until you appear for an arraignment before a judge who will set a bond and conditions for your release. Usually arraignments are set for the next court date after your arrest. The case will then follow the same procedure as if you had been released on a summons. There are situations where the magistrate and the judge refuse to set a bond for your release. In these cases you have a right to appeal your bond to the Circuit Court to try and reverse this decision.