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The Wilson Law Firm

Virginia’s Criminal Justice System: Getting Ready for the Court Case

Getting an Attorney

If you have been arrested or given a ticket in Virginia you have the right to be represented by an attorney - whether the allegation involves a simple traffic infraction or a serious criminal offense. It is my belief that in order to put yourself in the best position to get the best result you should take this right very seriously and always hire the best lawyer you can find in Virginia who has the specialized education, training and experience you need to help you navigate the criminal justice minefield. No one would dream of trying to handle their own dental emergency or medical emergency, yet every day people come to court in Virginia with the curious belief that they are somehow equipped to handle their own legal emergency. Perhaps the fact that the law allows people to represent themselves contributes to the generally foolish belief that it is actually a good idea to do so. Face it, most people have absolutely no idea how to protect their own interests in court because they don’t understand the complexities of the criminal justice process in Virginia, they don’t understand the rules of evidence used in Virginia and they don’t understand the statutory and constitutional issues implicated by the case. For obvious reasons, when people choose to go forward without the assistance of a lawyer, even with the simplest of traffic infractions, they often times make the situation worse. Don’t make that mistake.

Once you have realized you want and need the assistance of a Virginia lawyer and have decided to hire one to represent your interests, you should immediately start the process of finding the right lawyer for you. Do not wait until the last minute to contact the lawyer you want to hire because the lawyer you want may be unable to assist you due to being scheduled to appear in another court on your scheduled court date. However, if you are prompt with selecting the best lawyer for you, even if there is a scheduling conflict, it can generally be resolved by rescheduling one or the other of the cases. Also consider that even if the lawyer you want happens to be available to handle your case, by waiting until the last minute to hire the lawyer you probably compromised the effectiveness of the lawyer, and your own best interests, by limiting the time available to investigate the case and gather information, do any necessary research and prepare the case for trial.


Hiring a Lawyer

Most people prefer to hire a lawyer of their choosing rather than take a chance with a court appointed lawyer or public defender. Unfortunately, although lawyers are everywhere, finding the best lawyer for you can be challenging. Since the Virginia State Bar allows lawyers to advertise that they handle any type of case as long as they are, or can become, minimally competent in that field, the fact that a lawyer claims to handle a certain kind of case says absolutely nothing about the lawyer’s degree of experience or expertise in that particular field.

In an effort to select the best lawyer for your case, one thing to look for is experience. There simply isn’t any substitute for experience. You don’t want a rookie attorney who is learning the ropes at your expense. You want the veteran who has been there many times before, and through many years of experience, has seen it all.

However, experience is more than just years in practice. The experience you want is years of practice handling cases like yours. You want to look for specialization and expertise in a particular field. Stay away from ‘jack of all trades’ lawyers. Everyone understands that you wouldn’t want your general practice doctor performing a complicated brain surgery - and the same principle is true with lawyers. You don’t want a lawyer who dabbles in several types of law handling your case; you want a lawyer who focuses his practice on cases like yours.

In addition, look for extensive and ongoing advanced training in the particular field of interest. Ask about specialized training, certifications and attendance at national conferences. And since some lawyers will flat out lie to you in order to get you to hire them, go ahead and ask to see the certificates of attendance and the materials from the conference.

You may also wish to look for a lawyer who has been employed to teach law, is a published author or who has been consulted by the media as a consultant.


Court Appointed Attorney

If you cannot afford an attorney, and the offense you are charged with is serious enough that you could receive a jail sentence, you can ask the court to appoint a lawyer for you. You will be asked for information about your income to determine whether or not you are eligible for a court appointed attorney according to Virginia’s state guidelines, and if you qualify, the court will appoint a lawyer for you. If you are found guilty, the cost of the attorney will be added to any fine and court costs you must pay. If you are found not guilty, you will not have to pay for the lawyer’s services.


Witnesses

If you have witnesses you would like to use to support your defense, you must arrange for them to appear in court with you. A written statement by a witness, even if notarized, is not an acceptable alternative. Witnesses must come to court and testify, under oath, so the judge can see their demeanor and body language and so they can be cross-examined by the prosecuting attorney. You can ask the court to issue a subpoena to require a person to appear as a witness, even if you do not hire an attorney, but you must file the request well in advance of the trial date to allow enough time for the court to process the request, the subpoena to be delivered and the witness to make necessary arrangements.


Visit the Court

Although it takes time out of your schedule, you may find some comfort in coming to court in advance of your scheduled court date for several reasons. First, if you do it at the time of day you will be coming on your actual court date, it can give you at least a rough estimate of how long it will take you to get to court. This is extremely important because if you are late to court you may be found guilty in your absence or the Court may issue a warrant for your arrest. In addition, you can learn where to park, where to go once inside the court house, where the dockets are posted and where the courtrooms are located. The public is always permitted to observe trials in both Virginia General District Courts and Virginia Circuit Courts, and you may be able to observe some trials in Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts.