Manassas Court System and Criminal Charges
At the local level in Prince William County, you have the district court and the circuit court. There are two levels of district court, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations district court and the General District court. The juvenile and domestic relations district court, or J&DR, is where people who are charged with crimes that involve minors or who are minors themselves have their cases heard initially. Also, that’s where cases that involve domestic assault, which can be between two adults, are heard.
The General District Court is where everyone else who’s not a minor or doesn’t have a case involving minors will have their cases heard. The Circuit Court, which is on the third floor of the building, is the place where felonies are adjudicated. The difference between those courts primarily is that the district courts are what we call a court not of record. There’s not a court reporter in there—unless you hire one to come on your behalf, which we do very often in cases that we think are going to be tried. Whereas, in circuit court, there is always a reporter and there is always a record of the proceeding.
The other big difference between those courts is that in district court there is no place for a jury trial, it cannot happen in either of the district courts in Manassas. The circuit court is where jury trials occur. Now, if you are found guilty of a criminal offense in circuit court, you have the absolute right to appeal your case to the Virginia Court of Appeals. If you lose that appeal, then you have the right to appeal to the Virginia State Supreme Court. But neither of those courts are located in the Prince William County Courthouse. They are located in Richmond.
Are There Any Charges That Manassas Courts Take Very Seriously?
Not to be glib about it, but they take all charges very seriously. DUIs are prosecuted there vigorously, shoplifting is prosecuted there very vigorously, they take their drug cases very seriously, they take sex crimes very seriously. There really are no charges that you can go into Prince William County thinking, “these guys aren’t going to hit me too hard.” They try to hit everybody hard.
What Is The Difference Between Felonies and Misdemeanors in Manassas?
Felonies are considered the most serious charges that a person can face. If a person is charged with a felony, the person could be sentenced to a prison term. The minimum prison term for a felony is one year. It is understood that not everybody who is convicted of a felony ends up getting that, as there is also the possibility of simple jail time or just probation. When you are charged with a felony, it’s absolutely possible that you could end up going to prison. Conversely, a misdemeanor—while still a criminal offense—is considered much less serious than a felony charge. As a result, the maximum penalty that any person can get for any misdemeanor is one year in jail. The primary difference between felonies and misdemeanors is how they’re punished. Felonies can result in prison time and misdemeanors can only result in jail time.
Examples of Felonies and Misdemeanors
A felony and a misdemeanor can involve the same sort of criminal behavior, depending on the outcome. For example, if you’re charged with a theft-related offense and the amount is under $200, it’s considered by Virginia law to be a misdemeanor. However, if the amount is over $200, then it becomes a felony theft. That’s the most common example. There are other examples that involve drugs—for example, possession of marijuana and other certain lower scheduled drugs is considered a misdemeanor, whereas possession of a schedule 1 or 2 substance other than marijuana is considered a felony.
What Are Some Problems Do You See With The Court and Criminal Justice System and How it Currently Operates?
I think that my biggest pet peeve about the court system and the criminal system as it exists right now is the lack of discovery. Even though Prince William County has a higher obligation placed on the government to provide discovery than other jurisdictions do, the simple fact is that the Supreme Court of Virginia has rules that govern what kind of information is available to a defendant by way of discovery.
The discovery rules, especially at the district court level, are extremely thin. The only information that a defendant is entitled to through the discovery process in general district court is any statements made by the accused and any previous records of the accused. That’s it, that’s the list. You’re not entitled to things like forensic evidence or police reports or anything else. The only thing that they are required by rules to give you is any statement that you made and if you have a prior record, but those are the things you already know yourself.
The good news, however, is that there is currently a movement afoot across the state to tremendously increase the amount of discovery that’s available to defendants even at the district court level. There are meetings going on as we speak and I believe that by the end of the year 2015 the rules of discovery are going to be enhanced. That will be a great benefit to defendants all across the state, not just in Manassas.