Commonwealth's Attorney  |  Frequently Asked Questions

Virginia Courts
Commonly Used Terms/Definitions


A Felony is a crime punishable by one year or more of confinement in the penitentiary (state correctional system).

A Misdemeanor is a crime punishable by up to twelve months in jail and/or up to a $2,500 Fine.

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Circuit Court
All felony cases are tried in this court. Misdemeanor appeals from both the General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts are also heard by the Circuit Court. The Circuit Court is a “court of record,” which means that formal written records or orders are kept regarding court proceedings. Circuit Court judges serve a term of 8 years.

General District Court
All misdemeanor cases not involving juveniles or family members, including traffic cases, are tried in this court. This court also conducts preliminary hearings in felony cases to determine if there should be a trial in Circuit Court. General District Court judges serve six year terms.

Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court
All cases involving juveniles or family members (whether they are victims or defendants) are tried in this court. J&DR Courts also conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases involving juvenile defendants, felonies committed by one family member against another, or committed against juveniles by adults. Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court judges serve six year terms.

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An initial court appearance, during which the defendant is formally accused of a crime. The judge also reviews conditions of bond and appoints a defense attorney if the defendant is indigent.

Pretrial release of a person from custody, based on certain conditions specified by a magistrate or judge.

The posting by a person (or his/her bondsman) of a written promise to pay a specific amount as a condition of bail. A bond may be secured or unsecured. An unsecured bond is sometimes called a “recognizance” whereby the defendant is released by signing his name and agreeing to be of good behavior and to appear for court at a specified time and date.

A document issued by the General District Court or the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court for the arrest of a person, usually for failing to appear in court when he/she was ordered to do so.

Commonwealth’s Attorney
The prosecutor. A lawyer elected by the people to prosecute criminal and traffic cases.

The postponement or delay of a court hearing until a later date.

The person charged with committing a crime.

A court’s decision to drop the charges against the defendant; the defendant may be found not guilty, or the case may be ended for legal or other reasons.

Docket Call
The first Monday of every even numbered month in the Circuit Court at which time the court schedules all the trials and motions for the charges/indictments that will be presented to the Grand Jury during the current term of court (which lasts 2 months).

Grand Jury
A group of five to seven citizens, selected by the Circuit Court judges, whose duty is to hear the Commonwealth’s evidence in criminal cases during docket call, and decide if a trial should take place in the Circuit Court. Decisions are made by majority vote.

A document which formally accuses a person of a crime, usually a felony. Most indictments result from arrest warrants, but the Commonwealth’s Attorney may also prepare a “direct indictment” which bypasses the District Court proceedings.

A group of 12 citizens, randomly selected, who determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant on a felony charge (7 citizens on a misdemeanor). During jury selection, both the prosecution and defense are entitled to ask questions (“voir dire”) of the jury and to eliminate certain jurors. A jury’s decision to convict a defendant must be unanimous, and in Virginia, the jury also recommends a sentence in cases where a guilty verdict is returned.

A judicial officer authorized to issue arrest warrants and search warrants based on evidence presented by a law enforcement officer or an individual. The magistrate is also authorized to set bail and related conditions, and may issue emergency protective orders.

Nol Pros (“nolle prosequi”)
A prosecutor’s decision with agreement by the court to discontinue proceedings. The charges are not dismissed, and the prosecution reserves the right to reinstate charges at a later time.

Plea Agreement
Also known as the process of “plea bargaining”, it is the negotiation between the prosecution and the defendant and his attorney to resolve the case rather than go totrial. In these cases, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the charge or to a lesser charge, and sometimes the parties agree on the appropriate sentence to be imposed.

Preliminary Hearing
A court hearing during which the prosecutor presents evidence to a judge, who must decide if there is “probable cause.” The defendant, defense attorney, prosecutor, and any victims or witnesses subpoenaed are present. If probable cause is found, the case is “certified” to the Grand Jury.

Presentence Investigation (PSI)
A background report on a convicted person, prepared by a probation officer and submitted to the judge before sentencing. The report details past behavior, any prior criminal record, family background, education, employment, and health issues. Information is also provided about the crime. The PSI is used by a judge to assist in making a decision regarding sentencing the defendant.

Probable Cause
Reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has been committed and that the person who has been charged committed the crime.

Protective Order
A legal document issued by a court to help protect the health and safety of a victim of domestic violence or stalking. The protective order prohibits a person from having contact with the victim for a specific period of time. There are three types of protective orders in Virginia: emergency protective order (lasts seventy-two hours), preliminary protective order (lasts for fifteen days); and permanent protective order (lasts up to two years). Although protective orders are civil remedies, violating a protective order is a criminal offense.

Sentencing Hearing
A hearing during which a judge reviews a Presentence Investigation Report and victim impact statements, and makes a decision about the defendant’s sentence. In Trial by Jury cases, the judge reviews the jury recommendation; the judge may also hear testimony concerning the defendant, the crime, and the victim.

A legal document which requires someone to be present in court at the time and place stated. Usually delivered by a deputy sheriff.

A hearing process to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It may be a Trial by Jury or a Trial by Court (a judge).

Victim Impact Statement
A written statement or letter prepared by the victim in a criminal case and submitted to the judge prior to the sentencing of a defendant. In the statement, a victim describes how the crime affected him/her (or the family), -- psychologically, financially, socially, and/or physically.

A written, legal order authorizing a law enforcement officer to make an arrest (or to perform a search). In the Circuit Court, a "bench warrant" is analogous to the capias that is issued in the lower courts.

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