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.