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Virginia’s Criminal Justice System: In the Courtroom

People You Will Likely Find In The Courtroom

JUDGE: The judge is the most powerful and most important person in the courtroom. You should always be respectful of the judge and pay very close attention to what the judge says. If the judge gives directions, instructions or orders, you should be sure to do as you are told. Of course, you can ask reasonable questions and request clarification if you do not understand something in your case, as long as you do so in a respectful manner. Always remember, judges have the power to hold you in contempt and put you in jail if you do not behave appropriately in the courtroom.

BAILIFF: You will probably see a Deputy Sheriff in all Virginia courtrooms, and this person is known as the bailiff. The main job of the bailiff is to ensure the safety of the judge and everyone else in the courtroom, and to maintain order in the courtroom. Generally, before court starts they will give a speech in which they state the rules that you are expected to follow. Although it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in Virginia, they may remind you to turn off cell phones and pagers (if these are allowed in the courtroom), tell you not to talk or read material not related to your case while court is in session, tell you where to stand when your case is called, remind you to keep your hands out of your pockets when you approach the judge, tell you where to go if you are found guilty and have to pay a fine and court costs, etc.

CLERK: Since there may be as many as a few hundred cases in a single courtroom on any given day, in most Virginia courtrooms there is a court clerk present to assist the judge. The court clerk will help by organizing the cases in the manner preferred by the judge, handing cases to the judge as they are called, providing necessary forms to the judge as needed, noting the outcome of each case, etc. You should not approach a court clerk in the courtroom unless you have been specific permission to do so from the bailiff or judge.

LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS: You will likely encounter both state and local law enforcement officers in Virginia courtrooms. This is because in criminal and traffic cases both Virginia law and the United States Constitution require witnesses to come to court to testify about what they know or saw, and in most traffic and criminal cases the police officer, state trooper or deputy sheriff who wrote the ticket or made the arrest is a necessary witness.

COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY: In some situations a prosecuting attorney will be present in the courtroom to represent the Commonwealth and present the prosecution’s case. In Virginia, prosecuting attorneys are called Commonwealth Attorneys – in other places they may be called State Attorneys or District Attorneys. The involvement of prosecuting attorneys in traffic and misdemeanor criminal cases in Virginia’s District Courts varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In Virginia, some Commonwealth Attorney offices are involved in the prosecution of all traffic and criminal cases; other Commonwealth Attorney offices only get involved in traffic and misdemeanor cases in the District Courts if a defense lawyer is involved; and some Commonwealth Attorney offices have chosen to not get involved in the prosecution of any traffic and misdemeanor criminal cases in the District Courts.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: If you chose to hire an attorney, or had one appointed for you by the Court, this person is your defense attorney. It is likely that your defense lawyer will attempt to speak with the prosecuting attorney, if there is one, as well as the law enforcement officer involved in the case and any other witnesses who are present. If an offer is made to resolve the case by agreement (often called a "plea agreement"), your lawyer should present that proposal to you, address the pros and cons of the offer, discuss the various ways you can proceed and answer your questions to help you decide what to do considering your stated goals. If the case proceeds to trial, your defense attorney will make objections to certain testimony or evidence, cross examine prosecution witnesses, present your side of the case and make arguments on your behalf.

COURT REPORTER: Court reporters make verbatim recordings of proceedings in court. In felony cases being heard in a Virginia Circuit Court, a court reporter will always be provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia to record everything from the initial appearance through the trial. If your case is a misdemeanor case and you want a court reporter present to record the proceedings, you must hire your own to do so. Your Virginia defense lawyer can assist you with process.

JURY: In Virginia General District Courts and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts all cases are heard by judges. There are no jury trials in either of Virginia’s District Courts. However, in Virginia Circuit Courts, cases may be decided by a judge or a jury. Members of the jury are selected from a larger panel and are called jurors. Many people believe the job of the jury is to reach a unanimous verdict – but this is absolutely not true. To the contrary, each juror is given the responsibility to listen to the evidence presented at trial, take the instructions of law provided by the judge, apply the law to the facts of the case and decide whether the government has proven the accusation beyond a reasonable doubt. If all of the jurors reach the same conclusion, then they will announce a verdict of either guilty or not guilty. If all of the jurors do not reach the same conclusion, the trial will end in a hung jury.


Courtroom Demeanor

Courthouses are places where people answer allegations of wrongdoing which could have very serious consequences in their lives. People are convicted of criminal offenses, are ordered to pay fines, have their ability to drive suspended and are sentenced to serve time in jail every day in Virginia courthouses. Due to the serious nature of the proceedings, it is important that you remember where you are, what is happening around you, and always conduct yourself in a professional and respectful manner. How you appear and behave impacts how you are perceived, so your clothing should be neat, clean, and respectful and you should always behave with respect and dignity. Virginia courthouses are not appropriate places for laughing and joking, or for young children. Courthouses are not day care centers or playgrounds, so if young children can not be quiet and behave appropriately, it is wise to make arrangements for someone to watch them rather than bring them to court with you.

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