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Virginia Criminal Law Basics: Misdemeanors

Aside from minor infractions, there are two basic types of crimes that you can be charged with in the Commonwealth of Virginia; misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are
offenses for which, by statute, you can receive a sentence of up to 12 months in jail. They are usually brought either by an arrest warrant or a criminal summons. Common types of misdemeanors include petty larceny (shoplifting), simple assault, issuing bad checks, trespassing, possession of marijuana, driving under the influence and driving on a revoked or suspended license. These types of cases go first to the District Court; either the General District Court or, if the crime involved a juvenile or family member, to the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court.

If you have been given a summons for a misdemeanor, it will direct you as to where and when you need to come to court. If you have been arrested, however, then you will have to appear before a magistrate judge. The magistrate will inform you when you will need to return to court, and will also make a decision as to whether or not you should be granted bond. Because most misdemeanors do not carry a statutory presumption against the bond, it is likely that you will either be granted a reasonable bond or simply released on your own recognizance (without having to pay anything). If, for some reason, you are denied bond by the magistrate than either you or your attorney will have to file a motion for a bond with the Circuit Court in whatever jurisdiction you are being held. In most jurisdictions in Virginia, the bond motion must be filed one business day prior to the hearing.

At your first court appearance, the judge will advise you of your right to have an attorney and will appoint one for you if you can represent to the court that you do not have the financial means to hire one on your own. While you do have a constitutional right to have a lawyer for any crime that has the possibility of a jail sentence, Class 3 and Class 4 misdemeanors carry only a fine, so there is no constitutional right to have court-appointed counsel for them. At that first appearance, the judge will set the case for trial. Usually, the trial date will be at least a month away, but it could be even further out depending on the court’s schedule, the arresting officer’s availability, etc..

If you are able to hire an attorney prior to your first appearance then, depending on the jurisdiction, there is the possibility that your attorney may be able to contact either the court or the prosecutor’s office ahead of time and schedule the trial date without your having to appear in court that first time.

Prior to trial you should consult with your attorney about all aspects of your case; the circumstances surrounding the arrest or issuance of the summons, any possible defenses,
potential consequences, etc.. As a matter of standard practice in our office we like to learn all we can about you in a pretrial meeting and then, using what we’ve learned, draft a letter to the prosecutor introducing ourselves and providing them with some background on your particular case. While this is not common practice for many attorneys, we’ve found these types of letters to be very beneficial for our clients. Not only do they help to familiarize the prosecutor with the specific circumstances of your case, but they also tend to get the ball rolling a lot faster in terms of negotiating a fair and reasonable plea agreement.

Also prior to trial, our office will formally request discovery in your case. While this process varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it basically entails us filing a motion with the
court requesting that the prosecutor’s office turn over any and all evidence that they have against you. This usually includes police reports, copies of statements made by the defendant, copies of the defendant’s criminal record and driving record. Depending on the jurisdiction and the seriousness of the crime, the court may require that the prosecutor turn that information over to defense counsel up to two weeks prior to trial.

If you or your attorney is not able to reach either a plea agreement or an agreement to dismiss with the prosecutor prior to trial then the trial will go forward. If you are convicted in District Court, you have an automatic right to appeal to the Circuit Court but you have to note your appeal in the District Court clerk’s office within 10 days. If you note your appeal, and then later decide not to go through with the appeal, you can always withdraw it. You should be aware that any sentence you received in District Court will have stayed pending the appeal in Circuit Court.

For information and a free-consultation, regarding your criminal case, feel free to contact our office at: (703) 721-4773 or, use our online contact form to submit a question or request an in-office consultation. We are located near the intersection of King St. and South Alfred St. in Old Town Alexandria, at:113 South Alfred Street Alexandria, Virginia 22314