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Virginia court system might leave you feeling like Dorothy in Oz

"Virginia is for lovers." Have you heard that phrase before? It's been the tagline for Virginia tourism for so long that many in the advertising world say it has reached icon status. It certainly has attracted many visitors over the decades. Included among them are many young people who have chosen to come to the Commonwealth from other states to study at one of the hundreds of institutions of higher learning.

While Virginia's history is attractive on many levels, its influence in the context of criminal law is something that can be confusing. If you've been arrested and charged with an offense, whether you are a visitor or a Virginia native, the first encounter with the legal system could leave you feeling disoriented, sort of like Dorothy in the Land of Oz.

That's because the rules of criminal and court procedure in Virginia trace back to colonial times. In many ways, the traditions are rooted in practices hundreds of years old, brought over from England when the Jamestown settlement got its start in 1623.

Things have changed over the centuries, for sure, but some features are unique. For those who have never been charged with an offense, here are some things to expect.

Most of the time, after a person is arrested, the first stop is before a magistrate. His or her job is independently determine whether there is reason to believe a crime has been committed. If the answer is yes, the matter is relegated to one of two branches of the court system.

General District Court handles minor crime matters without a jury. Circuit Court is for cases that are more serious and can involve a jury. If a General District Court decision is appealed, it goes to the Circuit Court and is handled as if it has never been adjudicated before.

All this can make navigating the system confusing. No one should try it without having an experienced attorney at their side.

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