Fairfax County, Virginia Criminal Court Overview and FAQ

Fairfax County, Virginia is the most populous jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Virginia and is home to over a million residents. As a result, the courthouse, which is located at 4110 Chain Bridge Road, is one of the busiest in the country. If you are an adult charged with a crime in Fairfax County, your case will likely be resolved in either the General District Court or the Circuit Court.

The criminal justice process generally begins when you are arrested or issued a summons. A summons is simply a piece of paper that commands you to appear at a specific time at the county courthouse. It will also describe the offense you are accused of committing. The officer issuing the summons will ask you to sign the summons to acknowledge you received it. If you do not sign, the officer will handcuff you and take you into custody where you will appear before a magistrate.

The magistrate is a state official who issues warrants for arrest and makes the initial determination about whether to release an arrested person pending trial and, if so, what conditions should be imposed upon them. Depending on the nature of the charge, if you are someone who has not been in trouble before, has a steady job, and has ties to the area you may be released solely on your promise to appear at trial. If you have been in trouble before—especially if you have failed to appear for a court date before—then you may have to post a cash bond or submit to some other conditions before you will be released.

What happens after I am arrested or given a summons?

If you are arrested and released or given a summons, you will be given a date to return to court. Make sure to show up on that date. If you do not, there are several potential consequences. They include losing any bond you posted, being tried in your absence and found guilty, suspension of your license for certain criminal or traffic offense, an additional charge of Failure to Appear, and a bench warrant for your arrest.

When you arrive at court, you will see lots of monitors hanging on the wall. Those monitors will sort all the cases for the day alphabetically. You will find your name, courtroom, and the name of the officer who issued the summons or arrested you. Make sure you are looking at the monitors for General District Court.

What generally happens at a first appearance in a misdemeanor case?

Yours will not be the only case, as Fairfax County Virginia is a very busy courthouse. You will be waiting with many others. If you have not hired an attorney at this point, you will have to wait in the courtroom until the judge calls your case.  At that point, the judge will inform you of the charges and your right to an attorney. If you ask, the judge will usually grant a continuance for you to get an attorney. You should find an attorney right away, do not wait until a week before your next court date.

You can also ask for a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford one. In order to get a court-appointed attorney, you must be facing charges for which you might receive a jail sentence and you must be unable to afford one. After you make your request, the judge will have you go to court services to fill out forms so that he or she can determine whether you qualify for a court appointed attorney. Note that if you are ultimately found guilty, you will have to repay your attorney fees to the state.

If you do not ask for an attorney and you don’t ask for a continuance, the judge will take your plea. If you plead guilty (admit your crime) then the judge will give you a chance to say some words on your behalf and then sentence you. If you plead not guilty, the judge will note your plea and then “pass your case.”

You will go back to waiting while the judge handles all the other cases. After all the guilty pleas and continuances are finished, the judge will call your case again. At that point, you will have a trial.

What if my case is a felony case?

Felony cases are more complex. If your case is a felony case, your first court date will usually be an arraignment, which will be similar to a first appearance on a misdemeanor.  After that you will have a preliminary hearing date. Again, you can ask the judge to continue the case to allow you to hire an attorney or request a court-appointed attorney. If you do not waive the preliminary hearing, and you usually should not, the prosecutor will try to put on enough evidence for a judge to find “probable cause” that you committed the crime you are charged with. If the judge finds probable cause, the case will then go to a grand jury for indictment. If the grand jury returns an indictment as a “true bill,” then the case will proceed to Circuit Court.

Should I get an attorney?

Although you can represent yourself, you should not. An experienced attorney can evaluate a case in ways that you cannot. Specifically, an attorney will: (1) evaluate the case against you to see whether every element of the crime is met, (2) evaluate the way the evidence against you was collected, (3) help you decide whether to accept a plea or proceed to trial, (4) negotiate with the prosecutor, and (5) formulate a sentencing case for you if necessary.

How does an attorney evaluate a case?

Every crime has specific things called elements that the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If they cannot prove the elements, they cannot convict you. Even if you think you are guilty of a particular crime, you might not be. Virginia statutes are interpreted in cases decided by the Court of Appeals for Virginia and the Virginia Supreme Court. Those cases might hold that whatever it is you did does not meet the elements for the crime you are charged with. Unless you are a lawyer, you will not know how the law treats your situation.

How does an attorney evaluate the evidence?

For any evidence to be admitted in court–including criminal courts in Fairfax, Virginia–it must be collected legally. For criminal trials, that means it must have been collected in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and the Virginia Constitution. In addition, it must be admissible under the Virginia Rules of Evidence. A trained attorney understands the application of the Constitutional provisions and rules of evidence that are important in a criminal trial.

How does an attorney negotiate with a prosecutor?

In simple terms, a prosecutor’s willingness to negotiate is based on two things: what the statutes and case law requires them to prove and what they think they can prove. That is why the ability to evaluate a case and the admissibility of the evidence is critical. An attorney who knows what is admissible and what is not, or knows that even if all the evidence is admissible it still does not prove an element of the charged crime can negotiate a charge to a lesser charge or get the prosecutor to drop the case altogether.

How does an attorney formulate a sentencing case?

If you are convicted, a good attorney will be prepared to make a persuasive sentencing argument for your case. That involves getting to know you and making sure that the judge or jury understands your case and how it fits into the overall picture of your life. For a simple misdemeanor, this might not be too complex. But for a felony case, it might involve pulling together letters of support from family and friends, examining old court documents or criminal records, and arranging for you to perform community service. There are many aspects judges consider when sentencing and none of them should be neglected.

More questions? Contact the office today.