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Defending criminal and DWI cases in Virginia General District Court – Don’t blink

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O.J. Simpson’s criminal murder trial dragged on for months before the jury reached a not guilty verdict. That is a big contrast to how quickly matters move on a Northern Virginia General District Court date.

Because Virginia District Court moves so quickly, I work with my clients to have them ready well in advance of their trial date for the fast pace of District Court, including:

  • We will go to our trial date fully prepared well in advance, with the testimony of my client and witnesses thoroughly reviewed and prepared well before the trial date.
  • My client and I want to set plenty of discussion times before the trial date, because available discussion time can be limited on the trial date, and some courthouses have very limited locations for conducting confidential conversations.
  • Often case negotiations do not take place until the trial date, so my client and I will want to discuss a negotiations flow chart well in advance of the trial date. If I have extensive or unusual information or data to address for negotiations, I may want to contact the prosecutor in advance of the court date. However, in a court like Fairfax County, we might not even know the assigned prosecutor’s name until the court date.
  • Many of my clients come to court with family members and friends. With time often being limited for discussion on the trial date, it is very important that family members and friends talk with me before the court date, in the event that time is limited for me to talk with them on the trial date.
  • If a client is charged with a crime, we either will prevail or not — or arrive somewhere in between — on the trial date. If my client gets convicted, s/he needs to know such particulars as having a checkbook or cash ready to pay fines and costs, to avoid paying a 4% processing fee for credit/debit card payments.
  • Before the trial date, I tell my clients their appeal rights, appeal process and risks, and deadline to file for an appeal; discuss the appeal bond process (in the event that they receive active jail time); discuss the option to seek a delayed start of jail, weekends, work release or home detention (none of these alternatives are assured, but can be sought with persuasive effort); and discuss adjusting to any active jail time (including the option to wear to court/jail up to five pairs of white cotton underwear, one worn over the previous pair, and, for women, a wireless white bra).
  • Virginia General District Court judges — at least in the more busy courthouses — usually anticipate a quick trial, under one to two hours, unless alerted in advance when a longer trial is anticipated. In such a county as Arlington, the defense is expected to move well before the trial date, for permission for a trial longer than an hour.
  • For misdemeanor criminal trials in the Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts, the defense lawyer needs to find out how much time has been allotted for the trial. Some courts by default will schedule the trial time for only fifteen minutes, which only is an appropriate timeframe for entering a case settlement and not for trying the case. I know one juvenile court judge who is reluctant to schedule such a trial for over thirty minutes. The judicial theory for limiting trial time so narrowly might be to try to encourage settlements, keep heavy court calendars from spilling into subsequent dates, or encourage parties to appeal to the Circuit Court for a new trial if they want a longer trial. I call such limits unconstitutional deprivations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process of law and Sixth Amendment right to a trial in criminal cases
  • Judges can be unpredictable. Clients need to be ready for a judge not to agree to rubber-stamp a negotiated agreement. With trials, judges may rule to my client’s favor or adversely. A judge who rules one way on a matter one day may change his or her mind (or forget), and rule the opposite the next day. A judge who tends to sentence on the lighter side will have things that set him or her off to issue a harsh sentence. A judge who tends to sentence on the higher end of the jail scale may order a more lenient sentence in certain circumstances. The judge who issues a suspended sentence with a probation period, if a full-time judge, usually will be the judge to decide any probation violation hearing, so the defendant should particularly beware risking violating probation under the watch of a judge who sentences harshly for probation violations.

When I discuss the trial date and jail risks with my clients, they at first might get unnerved. However, we need to prepare for the best but be ready for an outcome less than the best, and be ready to explore my clients’ appeal and post conviction options if they do not obtain the outcome they want.

Preparation is a key to victory, and I rely on my clients to work as a team with me in that preparation.