The Criminal Law Process in Virginia

In general the criminal process is similar in all states, though there are slight differences in each. Here's an overview of the criminal process in Virginia.

The Arrest

In Virginia, people can be arrested if there is a good reason, or "probable cause," to believe they committed a crime. Usually that means a law officer has gathered evidence and gone to a judge to ask for an arrest warrant. Sometimes the arrest is made on the spot because the officer witnessed a crime.

After the arrest, officers must inform the suspects of their Miranda rights: that they have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. Judges can throw cases out if suspects aren't advised of these Constitutional rights before questioning begins.

The suspect is booked at a police station quickly after an arrest. Personal items such as money and jewelry are taken and stored, and the suspect is fingerprinted and photographed. Officials will confirm details such as full name and birth date. The next stop is to a magistrate, who will consult a schedule and set bail.

First Appearance

The arraignment is the first court appearance. A district judge formally reads the charge and asks the defendant to plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. Most often at this phase a not guilty plea will be entered. The judge also reviews bail. Though Virginia law does not set a specific time, arraignments are generally held within 72 hours if the suspect is in custody.


Cases go to preliminary hearings and grand juries as a safeguard to ensure there's enough probable cause to proceed to a full-blown trial. At the preliminary hearing, prosecutors appear before a judge and submit what they hope is enough evidence to show there was probable cause for the arrest. If the judge agrees, the case is bound over to the grand jury.

Making a Deal

Most criminal cases are resolved when the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to reduced charges or in exchange for a lighter sentence. Virginia judges usually abide by plea agreements, although they are not required to do so.

The Trial

Defendants in Virginia can be tried by a jury, or before a judge if both sides agree. Most felony trials are before juries and most misdemeanor trials take place before judges soon after arraignment. In either case, both sides present evidence and arguments, and the jury or judge decides if the prosecuting attorney has proven the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If all jurors can't agree, a mistrial will be declared on the charges to which there is no agreement, and those charges can be tried again later before new jurors.

Sentencing guidelines assign point values for various aspects of the conviction, such as the nature of the crime and the defendant's criminal history, and then calculate a range for an appropriate sentence. Judges have some leeway in determining the sentence, but usually keep the term within the range of the guidelines.

Consult a Lawyer

This article is a general outline of Virginia's criminal law system. If you're accused of a crime, contact a criminal defense lawyer quickly so that you can get the best advice for your specific case.

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