The Criminal Process in Virginia

Explained by a Hampton Roads Criminal Lawyer

No matter who you are, facing the criminal process is a frightening experience. For those who have never been in any kind of trouble there is a fear of the unknown and the unnerving possibility of jail. For those who have dealt with the system before, there is the uncertainty as to whether the punishment will be much more severe this time around. Regardless of your circumstance or what charges you may be facing, you deserve an experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorney. The Law Office of Shawn M. Cline, PC is here for you. 

The criminal process in Virginia courts typically follows these steps:


The first step in the criminal process in Virginia is the arrest. An arrest may be made with or without an arrest warrant, depending upon the circumstances. Significant legal rights are triggered by an arrest, and the lawfulness of an arrest may have profound consequences for the case that follows. Without unnecessary delay, the arresting officer must bring the suspect before a magistrate, who will determine the conditions for pretrial release, or commit the individual to jail pending a hearing in the General District Court.


The hearing before the magistrate is critical because bail is set at this stage. The Constitution provides that bail may not be “excessive”, but bail is not an automatic right, so under certain circumstances an individual may be held pending trial without bail. Securing representation prior to the hearing before the magistrate can be critical in ensuring release on bail. In addition to requiring the posting of a security bond to insure presence at trial, the magistrate may put additional restrictions upon a person, to include travel restrictions.

Preliminary Hearing

Following the hearing before the magistrate, and regardless of whether bail is offered, the individual will have a preliminary hearing at the General District Court. If the General District Court determines that there is probable cause to believe that a felony was committed, the court will certify one or more charges to go before the grand jury.

If the offenses are determined to be misdemeanors, they will be tried at the General District Court either immediately or at a later date. This is another critical stage in the process, and an important time to have an attorney, because often the charges can be negotiated down from a felony to a misdemeanor at this stage in return for waiving the preliminary hearing. An aggressive criminal defense attorney can greatly increase your chances of this happening, thereby avoiding a felony conviction.

Grand Jury

If the district court certifies one or more charges, the charges are brought before a grand jury to determine whether there is probable cause to issue an indictment. Essentially, the grand jury formally accuses a suspect of a crime. Upon a showing of probable cause that a felony has been committed, the grand jury issues what is called a “true bill”, and the case proceeds to the Circuit Court for felony trial.


The day after the grand jury meets, the Circuit Court holds session to schedule trial dates for the charges brought by the grand jury. On the day of trial, the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In Virginia, not-guilty plea felony trials are heard in front of a 12 person jury unless the defendant elects to waive the right to a jury trial.

Virginia is one of the few states where the jury decides not only the issue of guilt or innocence, but also decides the punishment. In most states, the judge decides the punishment when a jury returns a guilty verdict. Guilty plea trials are heard by a judge and not a jury. The decisions of plea bargaining and trial strategy can be the difference between keeping and losing your freedom, and ought not to be undertaken without the help of experienced counsel. 

Virginia is as tough on crime as any state in the nation. Regardless of your income or background, if you are facing criminal charges at any stage in the process, you deserve experienced and aggressive representation. The earlier you have experienced counsel on your case, the more opportunity to secure alternative disposition of your case.

Contact Shawn M. Cline today for a free case evaluation.

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