Virginia Criminal Process: the Initial Appearance and Arraignment

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by | August 1, 2016

A criminal charge in Virginia can occur with little advance warning, which means you, as the defendant, are often unprepared and uneducated regarding what is going to happen next. The process can seem as intimidating as the charge.  Complicating matters, the process differs in each jurisdiction; so the information that your friend is telling you based on experience in Fairfax County will be different than your experience in Arlington County or Alexandria City.  Nonetheless, here is a brief overview of the initial process in many Virginia state courts.

Once you are arrested and booked at the police station, you will be taken in front of a local magistrate “without unnecessary delay.”  The magistrate will determine whether you should be released or whether you should be detained.  You should not make any statements about the facts of the case at this point–though you will be tempted to explain your story to obtain your release–because any admissions that you make can be used against you later in court. 

If the magistrate does not release you, then you will be held until you can be taken in front of a General District Court judge.  This should happen within 48 hours of your arrest, but the timeline can be extended particularly when the weekend is part of the delay.  For example, if you are arrested on a Friday evening, and if the magistrate does not release you, then you will not appear in front of a judge until Monday morning. 

Depending on which jurisdiction you are in, the judge may consider whether you should be released on bond at this first appearance.  In other jurisdictions, this first appearance will be limited to the judge informing you of what you are charged with and asking you whether you want a court appointed attorney or whether you plan to hire an attorney.  The court will also likely set the trial date for misdemeanor offenses and the preliminary hearing date for felony offenses.

In either case, you will not be asked to plead guilty or not guilty at this point.  Instead, the focus is on determining who will represent you as counsel, whether you should be released on bail or bond, and when the next hearing will take place.  The hearing happens very quickly, so it is important for you to listen closely, answer the judge’s questions clearly and politely, and remember the dates that the judge announces.  If you are given a court appointed attorney, then the attorney should be in contact with you relatively soon.  If you chose to find private counsel, then it is up to you and your family to secure this representation. 

If the judge grants a secured bond amount, then you will need to post the bond amount in full or work with a bail bondsman to post the bond on your behalf.  Once it is posted, you will be released by the Detention Facility–assuming you do not have an immigration detainer, a warrant in another jurisdiction, or some other limitation on your freedom.

If the judge does not grant bond at this hearing, then you will need to work with your attorney to file a bond motion.  This will be an opportunity for your attorney to argue for your release pending the trial date.  Whether you will be granted bond will turn on a number of statutory factors, which generally take into account the severity of the alleged crime, your risk to the community if released, the risk that you will flee and not appear for a later trial, and other factors such as your prior criminal record.  To give you the best opportunity for a reasonable bond and release, you will need an experienced attorney to represent you through the process. 

These are just a few of the initial hearings that may take place following an arrest since each jurisdiction has different practices. And if you were released on a summons rather than taken to jail, then your process will also vary.  But regardless of which jurisdiction you are in or what you are charged with, you should always contact an experienced attorney as soon as you have your first contact with law enforcement–or as soon as you suspect that you are under investigation.  The sooner you start working with an attorney, the sooner the attorney can help you navigate the different hearings and advocate for your release at the earliest possible opportunity.

Contact the office today to discuss your case.