Henrico County Courthouse

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

I spent some time today observing proceedings in Henrico County District Court. (No, I was not a defendant.) I recommend the experience to anyone interested in seeing how the criminal justice system works in real life.

District court is the venue for hearing traffic offenses and misdemeanors. It also hears more serious cases for probable cause to be sent to circuit court.

I sat in on two different courtrooms. The atmosphere in both was somewhat reminiscent of that depicted in the old TV series, Night Court. The Henrico judges, of course, were not as unorthodox as Judge Harry Anderson in that series nor were there the slapstick and irreverent humor prevalent there. However, there was an informal feeling with lots of friendly interaction among the defense attorneys, prosecutors, police, and judges. The judges were respectful and, sometimes, friendly toward the defendants, while at the same time admonishing them for their misdeeds.

That being said, the judges were efficient. The dockets were long and the judges moved the cases through quickly. One had to be paying close attention to understand what was occurring, especially since the discourses between judges and attorneys were peppered with legal terms and “shorthand” that would not be familiar to the general public.

The summaries of some of the cases I heard are below. They illustrate the diversity of what was probably a typical day in district court. Although I sat on either the front or second-to-the-front row, I could not hear everything. (The judges’ audience was the lawyers and the defendants before them and not those folks seated in the courtroom.)

Some background: Being ticketed for going over the speed limit is generally a traffic infraction. In such a case, one does not have to show up in court. Rather, one can sign a form pleading guilty and mail in a check for the fine and court costs. However, going 20 or more miles per hour over the posted speed limit or going over 85 miles per hour, regardless of the posted speed limit, constitutes reckless driving. Reckless driving is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor, a criminal offense. (Under certain circumstances, it can be a Class 6 felony.) The possible sentence for conviction of a Class 1 misdemeanor is up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both. A large variety of traffic offenses are categorized as reckless driving. For reckless driving charges, the defendants have to show up in court.

Sample of cases from Henrico District Court (10/11/2023):

  • Older man charged with failing to stop at intersection. (Reckless driving) His running the stop sign resulted in an accident. The gentleman, appearing without an attorney, pled guilty. The police officer, in summarizing the case for the judge, reported that the defendant had told him that that he had not seen the car coming. Citing the defendant’s spotless driving record over many years, the lack of any injuries, and the defendant having insurance that covered all damages, the judge told him that she was giving him a “Mulligan.” She thought he deserved it and dismissed the charge. (It did not seem that he had to pay any court costs.)
  • Older woman charged with shoplifting $750 worth of merchandise from Lowe’s. Her initial defense was that she did not take that much. However, the assistant Commonwealth’s attorney argued, she and a companion had obviously been working together. He had used a large flat hand truck to carry out a bathroom toilet, sink, and other items. She had used a regular shopping cart to carry out toilet paper, paper towels, and other items. The prosecutor contended she should be liable for all the merchandise taken. The judge agreed.

The defendant had a prior record of such offenses in the past. Because of her prior record and taking into account her age and health condition, the prosecutor asked for a sentence of one year with all but 20 days suspended, along with restitution. The judge imposed a sentence of one year with all but five days suspended, along with full restitution of the value of the merchandise stolen. “You need to spend some time in jail as a result of your actions,” she said. Rather than being hauled off immediately to jail, the judge allowed the defendant time to go home and make arrangements before beginning to serve her sentence next Monday. The defendant was also ordered not to go into any Lowe’s store in Henrico.

  • Young female student from Colombia charged with reckless driving (speeding) on I-295 in Henrico. Her lawyer stated that she was going that fast because of being frightened by tailgaters and wanting to get away from them. The judge reduced the charge from reckless driving to speeding.  She was liable for a fine of $100, along with court costs.
  • Man charged with various infractions involving the operation of a moped. The defendant appeared in court on crutches and one foot encased in a surgical boot. The police officer informed the judge that the defendant had been involved in an accident while riding his moped. He was charged with operating the moped without a license, registration, inspection, and insurance. His defense was that he had lost his license many years ago and had been using the moped since. He said that he did not know that he needed a license, registration, etc. The judge dismissed all the charges except operating without a license, imposed a stiff fine and told him to get into compliance with DMV requirements.
  • Man charged with stealing motor vehicle. His defense was that he did not know the car was stolen. However, that defense was undermined by his statement to the arresting officer, without being prompted, that he “didn’t know anything about a stolen car.” The circumstances were that, after being pursued by police, the car stopped and the driver (the defendant) and a passenger jumped out of the car and ran in different directions with police officers in pursuit. The defendant’s lawyer worked to show that the stolen car was left alone unobserved by police long enough for a possible second passenger in the back seat to get away. The obvious intent was to create a suggestion that a third person was the one who actually stole the car. The judge found probable cause and certified the case to circuit court for trial.
  • Immigrant (?). The charge against this defendant was not clear to me. This was the second defendant who needed an interpreter. This defendant had signed a form waiving his right to counsel. However, the judge was not satisfied and wanted to ensure that the defendant knew his rights. Through the interpreter, she informed him that he was entitled to an attorney. She also warned him that the charge against him was a serious one and that, if she found him guilty, he would go to jail. She told him that the court would appoint an attorney to represent him if he met the criteria. At that point, he asked for an attorney. The judge told the bailiff to give the defendant the forms needed to apply for a court-appointed attorney. The interpreter was helping him with the forms the last time I saw them.

For defendants found guilty of reckless driving or other traffic-related offenses, Virginia law authorizes courts to allow a defendant to attend a driver improvement clinic in lieu of, or in addition to, the normal criminal sanctions. Such referral is entirely at the discretion of the judge and Virginia judges vary greatly in their use of this authority, including what criteria they use in making such referrals.

In the time that I observed the proceedings, there were several defendants charged with reckless driving (speeding) and one charged with following too close were provided this option. The defendants did not need to request it. For each one, the judge asked the police officer handling the case if the defendant were eligible for “driving school.” Upon being informed that the defendant was eligible the judge informed the defendant that she was going to find her guilty, but if she successfully completed “driving school” by a date in January, she would drop the charges. I inferred from this process that Henrico district court judges had developed standard criteria for eligibility for driving school.

That is a peek at a normal day in Henrico district courts.

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15 responses to “A Day in Court”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Once again, thank you for your reporting and partisan-free journalism. Truly appreciated.

    I’ve also had some connection with the court system. Many years ago with a couple of speeding tickets and I think a muffler violation. I got pulled over once by a park ranger after he saw
    me sipping from a brown bottle that he thought was beer and it was…root beer!

    But one thing that I think might be beneficial to everyone is to broadcast the “real” courts and not just the TV versions.

    Broadcasting the REAL courts, for instance, would provide some would-be violators from speeding to shoplifting some insight for possibly re-considering their contemplated actions.

    The shoplifting at Lowes and Home Depot is a big problem these days and yes, they DO steal big items like toilets!

    Article in the WSJ about organized gangs of shoplifters.. a criminal enterprise run by a guy who used his actual job at a drug recovery center to recruit shoplifters from his clients who delivered the goods to him which he, in turn, sold on platforms like ebay,



      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        WTH? I was thanking Dick for his partisan free blog post and you do what? Get a grip guy!

  2. Great article, Dick. A fascinating glimpse into the daily workings of our criminal justice system. Thousands of incidents like those you describe occur in Virginia every year. Most are too trivial for the media to report them. But the courts provide a look into the lives of everyday people.

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Highly recommend this article and attending any court sessions, but stay all day. I too spent an entire day in a court waiting for the judge to release a rental car being held by police in a murder investigation. It was in the early 70s (72 or 73) in Elizabeth City and the cases ranged from a disputed parking ticket to an arraignment for 1st degree murder (my case). It was midsummer. It was not air conditioned. It was like a scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

    And it was a real show. The judge had to use a magnifying glass the size of a dinner plate to read papers (blind justice joke perfectly applicable).

    The one case that stood out to me was an old guy whose employer had taken his car. The employer agreed to buy the NEW car from the dealer and his employee agreed to pay $100/month out of his wages until he paid the money back. It was a 1962 Plymouth or Dodge — they showed slides. Uh yup. The employee had been paying his boss $100/month for over 10 years!

    The employer was charged with a litany of thefts and the old guy got his car. We didn’t. After sitting all day, the judge ordered the rental car held until trial.

    1. Lefty665 Avatar

      My late father in law, among other things, leased cars, and specifically to the mafia running the docks in tidewater. They did it that way so when the cops seized organized crime assets that he as a poor lessor could plead to the judge that while the state had rights to the assets that the only person really hurt was the innocent lessor. He said it invariably worked, he got the cars back and the mafia got to lease new ones the day after the old ones were seized. One Firebird I got from him curiously had had every internal panel removed. Made me suspect it had been used to haul something….

      My dear old Dad impressed on me as a teenager that the worst crime I could commit was contempt of cop. That admonition has served me well over many years. Yessir, nosir, who sir, me sir? Oh, sir no sir, not sir I sir. Thank you for the speeding ticket and for not giving me the reckless driving ticket, sir.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I may have known him. We rented to the Longshoremen all of the time. Rent, not lease, so maybe I didn’t know him.

        In my time working at the agency, I rented to two murders. One guy was a really great guy. The girls at the office all loved him; he flirted well. He brought gifts to everyone when he returned the car. He would return the car and park it in the ready to rent lot. He detailed them before bringing them back, so even the cleaning crews liked him. He was in the merchant marine; an affable fella.

        One time he brought the car back and he looked like he’d been in a bear fight. He’d gone fishing with two buddies and the boat capsized in the Elizabeth river. He and one other guy spent the night clinging to the pilings of a pier. Barnacles worked him over. Spooky didn’t make it.

        Couple of days later, Spooky washed up with the boat’s anchor tied to his leg.

        These guys were on an breakbulk cargo ship that carried copper ingots. They’d tie a bleach bottle to a few and toss ‘em over going up the river and then fish ‘em out when they got ashore. Spooky didn’t think his cut was fair.

        Even after he went to prison, he sent Christmas cards to a few of us at the agency. We’d send one back.

        1. Lefty665 Avatar

          You might have, he was an interesting fellow. Bill managed car dealerships for a guy down there who had a string of them. Chevrolet, Pontiac, Mercedes/BMW are the ones I remember. He was their troubleshooter, a dealership not doing well, he would go in and clean the operation up, be there for a couple of years, then move on to the next mess. Leasing was an offshoot from that, and I gathered his mafioso leasing clientele followed him around. I’m sure he could put on a good “Oh poor me I’m just a victim too, I didn’t know those were bad guys when they leased the cars.” act for the judge to get his cars back. They were reliable customers until they got busted, and that was part of cleaning up a dealership’s finances. A dowry he brought with him.

          He was local Norfolk, had a tough childhood in the depression. He spent most of WWII in the Merchant Marine riding Liberty ships across the Atlantic, scary stuff at around 6mph. He had a hard death from mesothelioma caused by several months of insulating ships boilers with asbestos at the beginning of the war.

  4. Great article. Thanks.

    My last time in court was with my son who was in an accident shortly after getting his license. There’s a lesson here for parents.

    The judge asked the responding police officer to recount what happened. When the officer finished, the judge then asked the officer:

    “Was the defendant cooperative and respectful to you?”

    The answer from the officer was “Yes he was,” and that was key to eligibility for driving school.

    Children need to be taught to cooperate and be respectful of police officers. This is extremely important.

    BTW – When I arrived at the scene of the accident, I too asked two questions. My first question was if anyone was hurt. My second question was directed at the police officer investigating the accident. I asked:

    “Was my son cooperative and respectful to you?”

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      and if this was shown on TV, a lot more folks would get a first hand education about how to act and what not to do….etc…

      goes along with the idea that a law alone may not encourage folks to obey it… but if they know the consequences of not in a “in your face” way, more folks might be convinced to do right and not do stuff that harms others and gets them to jail!

    2. I lived pretty much that exact same story about two months ago. In our cases, the deputy informed me of how polite and cooperative my son had been before I even asked.

    3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      In each case I observed, with one exception, the police officer handling the case made a point in his summary for the judge to note that the defendant was cooperative and polite, etc. Because the officers made it a point to do so, I assume that Henrico judges have made it plain that they want to know how the defendant behaved toward the officer when getting ticketed or arrested. The one exception was the alleged car thief. The office had to chase him down and wrestle him to the ground.

  5. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    Well done, Dick. Probably typical of most courts around the country.

  6. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    As a reporter back in the day, I could always wander across the street to GDC and some story would appear before my eyes….

    And the last time I was in Henrico GDC, it was as a defendant, and the judge asked exactly that question of the officer, how had I behaved when the cop arrived at the scene. The letter from my mechanic about the brake problem might not have been sufficient for dismissal had the officer’s answer been different. 🙂

  7. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    One of the great benefits of going to court, besides seeing “justice” meted out, is determining you want to avoid it. Getting pulled in, losing time at work, the cost, the unknown fear, and for worse stuff, possible jail time, real expense, probation, etc. Getting caught in the system is not fun!
    A fairly mild way to be scared straight.
    And you also get to see the real world. Count your blessings and vow not to get pulled in again.

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