WHAT I CAN EXPECT.
Facing a criminal charge is daunting. There are numerous rules, procedures and processes in place before you ever even get to a courtroom or to trial. In this page, we'll try to give you a brief overview of what to expect when dealing with the court, as well as answer a few commonly-asked questions.
THE COURT SYSTEM
Virginia has two levels of trial courts. The "lower courts" are the General District and Juvenile & Domestic Relations Courts. Both have the power to try cases which are misdemeanors, and also conduct preliminary hearings for felonies. The Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court conducts trials for charges which involve a minor-age defendant, and which would be felony charges if the defendant had been an adult (18 or older). The "higher court" is the Circuit Court, and it tries all felony charges for adults, as well as any appeals from the lower courts involving misdemeanors.
Beyond the trial courts, there are appellate courts, which review rulings of trial courts to see if those rulings comply with the requirements of the law. That job may seem odd, since all courts are concerned with the law; however, a trial often raises numerous legal issues upon which the parties disagree, and a judge must rule on them all fairly quickly. An appellate court is generally able to look at any legal issue or ruling of the trial judge which is challenged by a party from the trial, and rule as to the ruling's legal correctness one at a time. In Virginia, the two appellate courts are the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Virginia.
HOW CASES PROCEED THROUGH THE COURTS
The process of getting a criminal charge from an arrest or summons all the way through a trial is too complex for a full description here. But in general, if you're charged with a crime, be prepared to go through the following steps:
For a misdemeanor crime, such as petit larceny, DUI or others, cases usually have two main hearings. The first, usually called a "first return" or "arraignment," is where a defendant must appear in court and be advised of A) the charge(s) pending against him or her, and B) his or her right to the assistance of a lawyer. The defendant then typically tells the judge what decision will be made about a lawyer (the defendant can hire a lawyer, request a court-appointed lawyer, or represent him or herself), and a trial date is set. The second hearing is the trial, and if the defendant is found guilty, he or she is typically sentenced by the judge on the same day.
For a felony crime, such as grand larceny, malicious wounding, robbery or others, the process is usually much longer. Often, the defendant will have the "first return" described above, just like in a misdemeanor, before a judge in the lower court. However, the next court appearance is usually a preliminary hearing. This is held in lower court, but is a hearing for a judge to simply consider whether to send, or certify, the case on to a grand jury for its consideration. The preliminary hearing is not a guilt or innocence hearing, and often the defendant presents no evidence.
If the case is sent to the grand jury, then the grand jurors are also given evidence from only the prosecution. The purpose of the grand jury is to decide whether to certify the case for an actual trial in circuit court. If the case is certified, the defendant will have a new arraignment in circuit court, and a trial date is set. If the defendant is convicted at trial or pleads guilty, he or she will be sentenced at a later and final hearing date.
HOW YOU CAN PREPARE
As you can see, the criminal process is not a simple one. If you're charged with a crime, there are some things you can do to be more prepared for the road ahead.
First, consult with a lawyer, even if you don't hire one. There can be a lot riding on the outcome of your case--jobs, rights, consequences for your family, to name a few--and you'll want to understand what could happen to you. A lawyer can advise you what to expect based on your particular charge and circumstances. And speak to a lawyer as soon as you can after being charged, since even a few days' delay could be the difference between securing or losing possible evidence for your defense.
Second, understand that you'll need to go to court. Unless you're charged with an infraction (where a conviction cannot result in jail time, such as a simple speeding ticket), you will almost certainly need to appear in court. And if you miss a court appearance without a legally-acceptable excuse, you could be arrested for your non-appearance! So plan on needing some time away from work.
Third, review the steps in the process as outlined above, and prepare for the length of time it may take to resolve your matter. Defendants in felony matters are often given a bond to ensure they appear for a court date. Those bonds sometimes restrict the defendant's ability to leave the state or travel internationally, so make sure you understand how long your matter might take. You don't want to plan a vacation overseas when your trial is pending if your bond won't let you leave Virginia! Misdemeanors usually require a month or more to find time for both needed court hearings. Felonies can take 6 months or more from the day you're charged to the day the case is finalized.
These are very, very brief overviews of the process. As a citizen accused of a crime, it is most important to note the procedures above, and the complexities of handling a criminal case. There are usually multiple hearings in even the simplest cases, and a complex felony charge could require at least 6 or more appearances! This is in addition to the difficulty a non-lawyer would experience in actually trying his or her case--where the rules of evidence, procedure, presentation and possible jury selection are almost certainly foreign to the defendant.