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Outcomes of a Criminal Trial in Virginia
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In Virginia, a criminal trial can end in a variety of different manners. Most people believe that if you are charged with a criminal offense, you will either be found guilty or not guilty. There are, however, several possible outcomes in a criminal trial, and it is important for your attorney to know what the options are, and which ones are acceptable to his or her client based upon their particular personal situation.
Often when speaking to clients, our criminal defense attorneys at McCormack & McCormack will address alternative disposition of criminal charges to avoid a conviction as follows:
- Dismissal/Nolle Prosequi/Not Guilty
- General Continuance
- Deferred Finding/Finding Under Advisement/First Offender
What Does Dismissal With Prejudice Mean?
Obviously, the best possible outcome is that the charge "goes away," and the client is not convicted of the offense. The manner in which this is achieved, however, varies greatly. A case can be resolved immediately and without a conviction in any of these three manners, yet they are all different in their effect. A dismissal is what is known as a dismissal with prejudice– this means that the case is forever done and can never be brought back again. This often happens in cases wherein the prosecutor or alleged victim agrees that there is insufficient evidence or shouldn't have been charged in the first place. This is the best possible outcome to a criminal case.
What Does Nolle Prosequi Mean in Virginia?
A nolle prosequi (also referred to as a "nolle prosse") is actually a dismissal without prejudice – this means that the charge can be brought back at a later date. While it is highly unusual for a charge that is nolle prossed to ever be brought back, it ordinarily happens when a prosecutor agrees to dismiss a charge but the defendant violates another similar law a short time thereafter. There are time limitations which limit the length of time after a nolle prosequi in which a charge can be re-filed, and they vary based upon the severity of the offense. Nolle prosequi's often occur in cases in which either the prosecutor does not currently have sufficient evidence to proceed (but may at a later date after forensic testing, etc.), or where the victim wishes not to proceed with the matter.
A not guilty finding occurs after the evidence is heard in a case and the judge or jury determines that the prosecutor or alleged victim has not proven the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Once a person is found not guilty, they can never again be charged for the same offense.
Oftentimes, the defendant may technically be guilty of an offense, but we are able to present sufficient mitigating evidence to have the judge or prosecutor agree to a general continuance. A general continuance is similar to the next-worse case resolution on our list (a deferred finding) but it is in all aspects a far better outcome for our client. In a general continuance, the judge does not make any finding that the facts are sufficient to support a guilty verdict, nor does the judge often indicate what the defendant's plea to the charge is. Procedurally, a general continuance is where the judge simply continues the case for a period of time – it may be a few weeks up to a year or two - and it is understood that the judge will dismiss the case once that time has passed. Oftentimes, the judge imposes additional requirements which the defendant must comply with in order to have the case dismissed: good behavior (no new criminal charges), completion of anger management or drug/alcohol classes, community service, etc. Typically, the only way for a defendant to be granted the opportunity for a general continuance is if they have no prior criminal record. The key to a general continuance – and the reason why the attorneys at McCormack & McCormack stress the importance of this outcome in many cases where the evidence is stacked against our client – is that this outcome allows for our client's criminal record to be expunged. Being granted a general continuance is oftentimes what saves our clients' civilian or military careers. General continuances are NOT specifically allowed by state law, so we often must do everything in our power to convince a judge or prosecutor that it is appropriate given the specific circumstances in our case.
Deferred Finding/Finding Under Advisement/First Offender
The last, and least favorable, way for a defendant to avoid a criminal conviction in a case is by way of a deferred finding (also referred to as a finding under advisement, or first offender). Several offenses in Virginia, including mainly drug possession, domestic violence, and some property crimes, have specific statutory provisions which allow for a deferred finding. This method is also commonly used with juvenile defendants with no or little prior criminal record, and will sometimes be offered even when it is not specifically allowed by state law. The procedure for a deferred finding is almost exactly the same as a general continuance: the judge continues the case out, places some terms and conditions on the defendant which they must comply with, and later dismisses the case. There is, however, one major distinction which sets a deferred finding apart from a general continuance, in a bad way: when the judge agrees to a deferred finding, he or she notes on the warrant or summons that they have found facts sufficient to support a conviction, but are nevertheless continuing the case to be dismissed or reduced at a later date. The impact of this distinction is major – this prevents a defendant from ever having his or her criminal charge expunged from their record. Many attorneys do not understand the distinction between a deferred finding and a general continuance, or they simply do not know to ask for a general continuance. This can have a devastating effect on a military or civilian career and oftentimes the defendant does not realize it until it is too late. The attorneys at McCormack & McCormack are well aware of the distinction between these two outcomes, and will fight tooth and nail to avoid a deferred finding unless it is the only option to avoid a conviction.
The final (and worst) outcome in a criminal case in Virginia is a conviction/guilty verdict. If you get to this point, this means that there were no legitimately fair plea offers extended, and that you lost the trial. A conviction does not, however, necessarily mean that the case is over and you have to be resigned to your guilt. If the charge was for a misdemeanor, you have an absolute right to appeal the verdict to Circuit Court, where you are afforded a "trial de novo," which means you get to try the case over from scratch, with a new judge. If the charge was for a jailable offense, you may elect to have a jury trial in Circuit Court. We have had numerous clients convicted in General District Court who prevailed and were found not guilty or had their charge dismissed in Circuit Court. For this reason, it is always important to have a court reporter in court to transcribe the original trial in General District Court for use, if necessary, in the new trial on appeal. If, however, a felony trial in Circuit Court results in a conviction, then the only recourse on appeal is through the Court of Appeals.
As outlined above, there are various ways a criminal case can conclude in Virginia. In order to protect your military or civilian career, it is absolutely crucial to make sure that your attorney is fully aware of the possible outcomes of your specific case. Without good advice, you can easily be talked or scared into making an uneducated decision that impacts the rest of your life. As is often the case, the easiest and quickest way out of a charge (deferred findings) may not even be an option if you want to save your career. The attorneys at McCormack & McCormack never take the quickest or easiest way out of a case – we fight tirelessly for each of our clients' cases while keeping in mind the long-term impact that the resolution may have on their career.