Criminal charges are brought either by warrant or indictment. Most criminal charges in Virginia begin with a warrant. If someone makes an allegation against you, or police investigate a crime and determine that there is enough evidence - at least initially - to charge you with a crime, they can ask a magistrate to issue a warrant. Once a warrant is issued, you may be arrested and either held in jail until you go before a judge, or released on bond until your first court appearance. In some cases, the police and prosecution will investigate the case and then file what is a called a “direct indictment” - that means that they went straight to court and presented your case to a grand jury instead of the magistrate. Direct indictments are typically done in serious or more sensitive cases.
When you are arrested, you may be taken to the magistrate to determine whether you have a bond or not. A bond is a set of conditions (including sometimes money) that allows you to stay out of jail until court. A secured bond requires someone to put up money for your bond - either the full amount or assured by a bail bondsman. For example, if you have a $20,000 bond - you can either put up $20,000, or sign on with a bail bondsman who will charge you a percentage, typically 10%, to take responsibility for the full amount. If you put up the entire amount, you will get it back when your case is resolved. If you pay a bail bondsman, you pay them only a percentage, but you don’t get that back from them because that is their payment for services.
Typically your first court appearance will be an arraignment held within a few days after your arrest. If you are held without bond, it may be the next business day or shortly thereafter. If you are not in jail, your first appearance may be within days or weeks. Some courts hold arraignments of people in jail by video. Most cases begin in district court. At the first appearance, the judge will tell you what you are charged with and ask if you plan to hire a lawyer. If you are held without bond, the judge may consider bond at the first appearance - but if you were just arrested, the court may schedule a separate bond hearing to give every time time to gather information about the case. The sooner you or your family hires a lawyer, the sooner they lawyer can file a bond motion and schedule a hearing.
If you are charged with misdemeanors, the district court will schedule your trial date. At that time, the prosecution will present evidence of the case and your defense attorney will present your defense. Many times, the prosecution and defense reach an agreement before the trial date. When you hire an attorney, the attorney can request “discovery” - which means the prosecution has to share certain information about the case against you.
If you are charged with felonies, the district court will hold a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution just needs to present enough evidence to convince the judge that the case should move forward. If the judge finds there is enough evidence for the case to continue to the next phase, the case is then certified to the grand jury to decide whether to indict you or not. The grand jury meets behind closed doors - you and your attorney will need to wait to find out if you have been indicted or not. Usually, the prosecutor and the defense attorney will be in communication about this so it is not a surprise. Under Virginia law, prosecutors can also skip the first phase and take felony charges directly to a grand jury without a preliminary hearing. In that case, you will have already been indicted by the time you are arrested.
Felony charges then move up to circuit court. In circuit court, you may have multiple court appearances. Your first appearance will likely be another arraignment where the circuit court judge officially informs you that you have been indicted. Some courts have certain days of the month called “docket call” or “term day” where all new cases are set for the first time. From there, the case can be set for trial by a judge or jury, or for a guilty plea. Because it is usually too early to know how the case will proceed at that point, many attorneys set the case for trial and then change the date later if the case is resolved by a plea agreement. There may be additional court dates in between the first appearance and the trial date, for the attorneys to raise legal arguments or address issues in the case.
In Virginia, you can choose to be tried by a judge or a jury. There are many factors that go into this decision, and you should discuss your case in detail with your attorney to make this decision. If you choose a jury trial, you can also choose whether the jury or the judge sentences you if convicted. This is also an important decision that varies case by case. In either scenario, the judge can dismiss your case either before or during the trial if there are legal or constitutional issues. If you are found not guilty, you are free to leave and can never be tried for the same charge again. If you are found guilty, you will likely have additional hearings for the court to confirm your sentence and deal with any additional legal arguments your attorney makes on your behalf. If convicted, you have 30 days to begin the appeal process. It is very important to understand all possible outcomes in your case before your trial date.
Being charged with a crime is a serious and stressful time. Hiring a good defense attorney early in your case can make all the difference in the outcome. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys will guide you through the process and do everything in their power to fight for a favorable outcome.