Basic Overview of the Criminal Justice System
Types of Criminal Charges
- MISDEMEANOR: A crime punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or up to a $2500 fine
- FELONY: A crime punishable by one or more years in the state penitentiary
Types of Trial-Level Criminal Courts
- GENERAL DISTRICT COURT: Trial court for misdemeanors involving adults that do not have immediate familial relationship with their victims. Also hold preliminary hearings for felony cases.
- JUVENILE & DOMESTIC RELATIONS COURT: Trial court for misdemeanors involving juvenile victims or defendants and those cases in which the defendants and victims have an immediate family relationship. Also holds preliminary hearings for felony cases.
- CIRCUIT COURT: Trial court for felony cases and misdemeanor appeals.
Types of Criminal Hearings
- ARRAIGNMENT: A defendant’s first appearance before the court. The court reads the charges, determines whether the defendant will hire a lawyer, and sets a date for preliminary hearing or trial.
- PRELIMINARY HEARING: A probable cause hearing for a felony. Here, the prosecutor must show that a crime probably occurred and the defendant probably did it.
- INDICTMENT: A finding by the grand jury that a crime occurred, the defendant probably committed it, and the case should be tried.
- TRIAL: a bench or jury hearing to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
- SENTENCING: A post-conviction hearing where both side may present evidence. After hearing evidence, the judge or jury determines the appropriate punishment.
Possible Outcomes in a Criminal Case
- ACQUITTAL or DISMISSAL: The defendant is found not guilty.
- NOLLE PROSSED: The prosecutor elects not to prosecute the case.
- CONVICTION: A defendant is found guilty and sentenced.
Other Terms to Know:
- SUBPOENA: An order of the court for a witness to appear at a particular time and place to testify and/or provide documents. Failure to appear when subpoenaed to court results in criminal charges.
- CAPIAS: A writ ordering the arrest of the named person. Typically issued when someone fails to appear to court or fails to comply with the court’s order.
- SHOW CAUSE: A type of court order that requires one or more parties in a case to justify, explain or prove something to the court.
Elizabeth K. Humphries
PO Box 886
Fredericksburg, VA 22404
8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Monday - Friday
After Hours Circuit Court Informational Line
Ph: 540-310-0675 after 5 p.m.
Victim Witness Assistance Program
Police Department (non-emergency)