The General District Court decides all criminal offenses involving ordinances, laws, and by-laws of the county or city where it is located and all misdemeanors under state law. A misdemeanor is any charge which carries a penalty of no more than one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.
The Code of Virginia defines criminal offenses and sets penalties. For many offenses the penalty described is a fine. The General Assembly has established a processing fee which is charged to every convicted defendant and paid into the State treasury. Any defendant represented by a court appointed attorney or public defender who is convicted must reimburse the court for the representation costs. Additional fees are added for drug violations, courthouse security and maintenance, and a variety of other funds established by the Virginia Assembly.
The District Courts do not conduct jury trials. All cases are heard by a judge. Each defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon consideration of evidence the judge decides the question of guilt or innocence. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will then determine which penalty, as set by the Code, is proper and lawful.
The General District Court also holds preliminary hearings in felony cases, that is, any charge which may be punishable by more than one year in jail. These hearings are held to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify holding the defendant for a grand jury hearing. The grand jury determines whether the accused will be indicted and held for trial in the Circuit Court.