Virginia Criminal Court Process Explained

Being arrested and charged with a crime can be overwhelming.

This is especially true if you have never dealt with the criminal justice system before. Because of the constitutional right to a speedy trial, the criminal court process in Virginia can move quickly.

After an arrest, you may find yourself in court before you have even had time to process what has happened to you. Because of the swift nature of the court process in Virginia, it is critical that you speak to a criminal defense attorney right away. Your lawyer will be able to help you understand the charges you are facing and mount a strategic defense on your behalf.

Contact Upton Law, PLLC today for a free and confidential case review. Attorney Samantha Upton can provide a straightforward, realistic assessment of your case and skillfully guide you through the criminal court process.

Understanding the Virginia Criminal Process

Your path through the criminal justice system in Virginia will depend on the type and severity of the criminal offense that you have been charged with committing. However, most misdemeanors and felonies generally go through the same process:


A person can be arrested after a court or magistrate issues a warrant of arrest. Alternatively, police can arrest a suspect without a warrant if they see the suspect committing a crime or have probable cause to believe a suspect has committed a felony offense.


When a defendant is arrested, the officers will bring the defendant to the police station or jail. The police will verify the defendant’s identity and get photographs and fingerprints for record-keeping purposes. The defendant will typically be detained until making an appearance before a judge or magistrate.

Bond or Bail

The defendant must be brought before a judge or magistrate as soon as possible following arrest. Usually, this will take place by the next business day. The magistrate or judge will determine whether the defendant should be released on bond or bail. In Virginia, a defendant is usually afforded bail or bond unless the judge or magistrate determines that the defendant is charged with a crime that involves a presumption against the bond, poses a danger to the public or themselves, or the defendant poses a risk of fleeing from the state.

Arraignment/Advisement/First Appearance

The arraignment represents the first official hearing in a criminal case. At an arraignment, a defendant is formally advised of his or her charges. The defendant will also be advised of the right to legal representation and asked if he or she has already obtained counsel, needs the court to appoint counsel, or chooses to waive counsel. The court will then schedule another court date, which will either be a preliminary hearing for felony charges or the trial for misdemeanor charges.

Preliminary Hearing

At the preliminary hearing, the court will review the prosecution’s case to determine whether probable cause exists to bring a defendant to trial on the charges. If the court finds probable cause, the case is referred to a grand jury, who will then decide whether to maintain the charges. If the grand jury finds probable cause, it will issue an indictment. If the grand jury does not find probable cause for the charges, the case is dismissed.


Misdemeanor charges are normally heard in a bench trial or a trial without a jury where the judge acts as the factfinder. Felony charges can be a bench trial or a jury trial. A felony trial begins with the jury selection process, where both the prosecution and defense can question potential jurors to ensure that the people selected for the jury can render an impartial verdict. During the trial, both sides can present evidence and witnesses and cross-examine the other side’s case. After each side has presented its case, the judge or jury will render a verdict of guilty or not guilty (or, in certain cases, the jury will determine that it cannot reach a verdict). If you are found guilty, the trial judge will impose a sentence.


If legal errors were committed during the trial, the defendant can choose to appeal the case. Appellate courts review the trial proceedings to determine if any errors may have affected the outcome of the case or the sentence. Misdemeanor cases heard in General District Court in Virginia have an automatic right of appeal, which means you can appeal your case to Circuit Court for a brand-new trial for any reason.

Of course, not every criminal case ends up going to trial or to an appeal. Some criminal defendants choose to accept a plea offer from the prosecutor prior to trial. Other criminal cases are dismissed when the prosecutor cannot make a legally sufficient case.

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Benefit to Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney Early in the Process

Important decisions must be made in your case as soon as you are arrested by the police. Hiring an experienced Virginia criminal defense attorney like Samantha Upton as soon as possible can provide you with many benefits. For instance, she can:
  • Arrange for your surrender to law enforcement so that you can avoid the embarrassment of an arrest at your home or place of work if you have reason to believe that an arrest is imminent
  • Advise you on whether to speak to police following your arrest or whether you should simply remain silent (as anything you say to a police officer can – and likely will – be used against you)
  • Request a Bond Hearing, argue for why you should be granted bond, and ensure that you understand the conditions of your release
  • Investigate your case and challenge the evidence to try to secure a reduction or dismissal of your charges
  • Advise you on a mitigation strategy that can increase the odds of reducing your charges through a plea offer or lessen your sentence

Criminal Statute of Limitations in Virginia

For many criminal offenses, Virginia law places a time limit on how long a prosecutor has to file charges against a suspect. This time limit, known as the statute of limitations, is intended to help ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system by requiring that most criminal cases get prosecuted while evidence and witness testimony remain fresh.

In Virginia, most misdemeanor criminal offenses are subject to a one-year statute of limitations. Other misdemeanors that have different limitations periods include:

  • Petit larceny – Five years
  • Official misconduct – Two years
  • Practicing law without a license – Two years
  • Failure to pay taxes – Three years

Conversely, most felonies in Virginia are not subject to the statute of limitations, including most violent crimes. Examples of felonies that do not have a limitations period include aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, rape, kidnapping, manslaughter, and murder.

Although the statute of limitations for a criminal offense may begin to run once the crime has been committed or the commission of the crime has begun, a criminal defendant may commit further acts that stop the clock on the limitations period. For example, if a criminal suspect flees the state of Virginia or otherwise actively evades arrest as a fugitive, the statute of limitations does not begin until the suspect returns to Virginia or is arrested, no matter how long that takes.

Talk to a Virginia Criminal Defense Lawyer Now

If you have been arrested or charged with a crime in Richmond or anywhere else in Virginia, you need to understand your rights, what defenses are available to you, and the possible and likely outcome of your prosecution. Contact Virginia criminal defense attorney Samantha Upton at Upton Law, PLLC today for a free, confidential consultation.

When you work with Upton Law, PLLC, you will be quoted a flat fee at the outset. So, you will never need to worry about running up charges when you talk to your attorney or if your case takes more legal work than initially expected.

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