Understanding Criminal Justice
A person accused of a criminal offense or serious traffic matter may be
taken into physical custody by a law enforcement officer. Depending on
the nature of the criminal offense, a judicial official, decides whether
a person will remain incarcerated pending their trial or placed on a bond.
A bond is a promise to appear in court coupled with monetary provisions
in case a defendant does not come to court. A bond generally includes
conditions such as good behavior, staying within the state, and timely
appearing in court. A court may require that a person be released only
to a professional bondsman.
The judicial branch of government exists to resolve disputes according
to law, justice, and the rule of reason
. The main component of the judicial system is the trial court, which is
presided over by a judge. In criminal and traffic matters, courts conduct
trials to determine an defendant's guilt or innocence. Decisions are
designed to be made objectively and impartially by evaluating case facts
and applicable law. There are many rules and procedures designed to promote
fair, just, and impartial court decisions. In the United States, there
are separate federal and state court systems. Each court system has separate
jurisdiction or power to hear certain matters. In Virginia, the state
trial courts are the General District Courts, the Juvenile and Domestic
Relations Court, and the Circuit Courts. The District Courts have jurisdiction
to conduct trials by judges for misdemeanors and traffic cases, and to
conduct preliminary hearings for felony matters. The Juvenile and Domestic
Relations Courts initially conduct hearings for matters involving juveniles
and some domestic matters. District Court and Juvenile matters are appealable
de novo to the Circuit Court. Circuit Courts conduct judge or jury trials for
felonies and for misdemeanor and traffic appeals. Circuit Court decisions
may be appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. Thereafter, a defendant
could seek an appeal (writ) from the Virginia Supreme Court.
Despite elaborate rules and procedures designed to promote accuracy and
reliability, the judicial process is not perfect and is subject to the
same limitations intrinsic in all human activities
. For example, evidence and facts presented at trial may differ with one's
expectations; witnesses may not be believed; and judges or juries may
have differing views regarding the law or evidence. Consequently, there
is always an element of risk going to court, and guaranteed outcomes are
Judges are judicial officers who are in charge of court proceedings. They
have extensive power to administer and control any matter properly before
them. The judge's power and authority includes the possibility of
incarceration for anyone in contempt of their orders. One important role
of a judge is to insure the proper administration of trials and court
proceedings. Judges are responsible to properly and fairly administer
established rules and procedures. In bench trials, judges also make the
final decision regarding the legal and factual issues of a case. In jury
trials, a group of citizens makes this decision, while the judge makes
sure the proceedings are properly conducted.
Attorneys are professionals licensed by a state who usually have graduated
from an accredited law school. Generally, this means that they have at
least seven years of university education, and have passed a state bar
exam. Attorneys must comply with legal and ethical rules. They can be
admitted to practice in particular jurisdictions and allowed to represent
clients in court proceedings. Despite these general requirements, attorneys
differ significantly in their knowledge, experience, skills, and overall
abilities. Some attorneys may have years of trial experience while others
may focus in other legal areas not involving going to court. In criminal
cases, a prosecutor represents the state, and a defendant is represented
by a private attorney, court appointed attorney, or a public defender.
Within the bounds of legal and ethical considerations, it is the duty
of each attorney to represent their client and to advocate the legal,
factual, evidentiary, and practical considerations of their case.
Witnesses are people who formally provide information to a court through
testimony. Courts, Judges and jurors, need accurate and reliable information
to make correct decisions. The court's primary source of such information
is the testimony of witnesses. Important rights, duties, and responsibilities
are determined by what witnesses say or fail to say during a trial. Witnesses
are generally classified as factual, character, or expert witnesses.
Fact witnesses testify regarding some aspect of the factual issues of a case.
Character witnesses generally testify regarding some relevant trait or characteristic of a
party or other witness.
Expert witnesses testify regarding relevant matters that require some specialized training
or knowledge. The main problem with witnesses is that people can say anything.
Even in the best of circumstances, people are seldom completely accurate.
Moreover, people can lie; people can make mistakes. The correctness of
information is always important. It is up to judges or a juror to determine
what information they believe. This is not always an easy task. Judges
and jurors have their own viewpoints and feelings, and the interpretation
of evidence and testimony frequently varies.
Arraignment and Pleas
arraignment is the procedure of bringing an defendant before the court, the advising
them of the charges, and asking them what is their plea to the charges.
This is usually done the day of the trial, but can be done before the
trial date. A plea is the defendant's answer to a criminal charge.
It is usually made to the judge immediately before the trial. The judge
will ask a defendant how do they wish to plea. A plea must be
voluntary. Therefore, judges usually question defendants to insure that their plea
is made voluntarily with an understanding of the nature of the charge
and the consequences of their plea.
There are several different types of pleas. A
guilty plea is an admission that a defendant committed the alleged offense. No additional
facts are needed to reach a verdict. A plea of guilty waives all but jurisdictional
objections, impermissible sentence objections, and the objection that
no offense is charged. It entirely relieves the prosecution of the burden
of proving any facts. If a defendant pleads guilty to a felony, they are
waiving their right to an appeal, except on jurisdictional grounds or
the imposition of an impermissible sentence. On a plea of guilty, the
court makes all decisions regarding the outcome of the case.
Alford plea, usually made in conjunction with a plea agreement, is a special plea
that results in a defendant being found guilty. This plea is generally
made to reduce exposure to more serious punishment that could result from
a trial. For example, a defendant believes they are innocent but the evidence
against them is substantial and there is a significant risk that they
would be found guilty and receive a significant punishment. The prosecutor
has offered a plea agreement, instead of risking the uncertain results
of a trial, the defendant agrees to accept the plea proposal, and makes
an Alford Plea. A defendant is nonetheless found guilty, though maintaining
their subjective belief in their innocence.
nolo contendere or no contest plea is usually an indication that a defendant does not wish to defend the
charges against them. It in effect has the same consequences as a guilty plea.
plea denies one committed the alleged offense. A
no plea is a noncommittal assertion in which the court will enter a plea of not
guilty. The prosecuting authority is then required to prove guilt beyond
a reasonable doubt. A defendant has the right to defend themselves.