General district courts are the lowest level court in the Virginia judicial system, and each city and county in Virginia has a general district court. A general district court determines criminal offenses involving the ordinances, laws, and by-laws of that city or county, as well as misdemeanors under state law. These courts have jurisdiction for the following specific case types:
- Traffic violation cases.
- Misdemeanor criminal cases.
- Civil cases involving amounts less than $4,500 and most civil cases involving amounts less than $25,000.
- Preliminary hearings for felony cases.
All general district court trials are bench trials. That means that a judge, not a jury, hears and determines the outcome of your case. Furthermore, general district court is not a court of record, which means that they aren’t officially recorded or transcribed.
Traffic cases in general district court
Speeding tickets and other moving traffic violations count against you with Virginia’s demerit points system. You have two options to deal with the citation. The first is that you can pay the ticket, which is essentially pleading guilty to the traffic offense; the second option is to challenge the citation in court.
If you pick the latter option and decide to challenge the traffic charges brought against you, your case will be heard in general district court on the date listed on your citation. Read the ticket carefully, as you either need to pay or show up in court or else your license could be suspended. On your court date, you would appear in court and enter a not guilty plea. A trial will generally occur that day, although sometimes a case will be continued to another date.
If you hire a defense attorney to represent you on a traffic charge, he or she can handle some of the burden of dealing with the court. We’re frequently able to show up in court on your behalf, so that you don’t have to take time out of your day to get to the courthouse.
Misdemeanor cases in general district court
Misdemeanor offenses are brought to general district court through an arrest warrant or a summons. If you’ve been given a summons, the summons will state when you need to be in court. If you’ve been arrested on a warrant, your bond papers will tell you when you need to be in court.
If you’re arrested on a warrant, you may be released on bond. In almost all misdemeanor cases, particularly if it is your first misdemeanor, the magistrate will set bond. If you’re able to post bond, you must sign an agreement stating that you will appear in court for your arraignment.
Your first court date is the arraignment, or first appearance. In some instances you’re formally advised of the charges being brought against you. If the charges against you could result in jail time then you will also be advised of your right to an attorney.. If you can’t afford counsel, the court will appoint one for you. At this point, the court will also schedule your case for trial.
The prosecution bears the burden of proving that you committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt and will begin the proceedings by introducing evidence against you. This may include any witnesses to the offense. If you have retained defense counsel, he or she will cross examine the witnesses and may present evidence on your behalf. The prosecution can present rebuttal evidence before the judge decides the case.
If you are found not guilty, the case is over, and the charges will be dropped. If the court finds sufficient evidence against you to convict you of the charge, your case proceeds to sentencing. Depending on the magnitude of the crime, this could mean a fine or potential jail time.
Having a defense attorney help you navigate the criminal court system can make a difference in whether you’re found guilty or not guilty. There are many defenses that can be used in criminal trials depending on your unique situation, and having someone negotiate on your behalf can mean a better outcome. Even if you are guilty, an attorney can often arrange a plea agreement to help you avoid a conviction.
Felony cases in general district court
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, felony cases typically begin in general district court with the arraignment. At this time your charges will be read and you’ll be advised of your right to an attorney. If you’ve already hired a defense attorney, he or she can contact the court to determine if you must be present at the arraignment.
The preliminary hearing is the next step in the felony court process, and it’s held to determine whether it’s possible you have committed the offense. Usually only the prosecution presents evidence at the preliminary hearing. Occasionally, the prosecution’s evidence is insufficient to move forward with the original charge(s). In this situation, the charges against you may be reduced to misdemeanor charges and be resolved in general district court, or they may be dismissed altogether. Most times the prosecution’s evidence is sufficient in convincing the judge to move forward with the charges. If this is the case, the next step will be grand jury. Even if a felony charge is dismissed, the Commonwealth may still present it to a grand jury to revive the charge.
Similar to the preliminary hearing, only the prosecution will present evidence at a grand jury. If the Commonwealth provides sufficient evidence for your case to continue, the jury will issue an indictment against you which will move your case up to circuit court. If the evidence is insufficient, your case will be dismissed.
If you’ve been charged with a felony and you’d like to know more about how the case moves through circuit court, click here.
Appealing a case from general district court
General district courts do not have appellate jurisdiction because they are the first courts you might contact with for a criminal offense. However, you can appeal a case that is heard and tried in general district court. If the appeal is accepted, it’s moved up to circuit court and heard de novo (or as if there had been no prior trial). An experienced defense attorney can help you enter your appeal within the designated 10 day time frame and build the best defense for your unique circumstances.