Every jurisdiction throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia has its own little peculiarities. As an attorney who has practiced in numerous of the several judicial circuits, I am familiar with many of them.
One such peculiarity exists when it comes to charges in the Arlington County General District Court. Arlington, as with some jurisdictions, has not done away with the practice of having a formal arraignment for persons subject to a criminal charge in the General District Court. Courts keep this practice for several reasons, the principle one being that it allows the Court to maintain added control over their schedules. Likewise, when someone is issued a warrant or summons to appear for a criminal charge in Arlington County General District Court, they given a date to appear for an arraignment.
Now before I say more, it is important to note that the court date provided to a defendant is not always an arraignment date. On traffic tickets for example, the date provided is usually an actual trial date. One can usually assume that if the time listed on the paperwork is other than 2:00pm and if the defendant is not in custody, then that court date is NOT an arraignment. The best way to confirm this is to phone the clerk's office to verify the nature of the court appearance. Their number is 703-228-7900.
Very often, I encounter potential clients who are frantic because the notice that the court date listed on their paperwork is mere days away from the date they were arrested. I cannot describe the sigh of relief that comes over them when I explain that this is an arraignment. Yet, even more of a relief occurs when I explain that they do not need to appear on this court date if they have hired an attorney.
In the Arlington County General District Court, if a defendant has hired an attorney (and if that attorney is aware of local practice), then the defendant does not need to appear in court for arraignment. What happens is relatively simple. Once the attorney is hired by the defendant, the attorney may avoid having his client appear and having to appear himself by visiting the clerk's office and entering his appearance of counsel. The attorney should note on the appearance of counsel that he wishes to waive arraignment and set the matter for trial/preliminary hearing. The clerk's office is very helpful in providing suitable court dates, which are dictated by the officer's assigned dates and the court's docket vacancies. I would further recommend that the attorney entering his appearance note the name of the arresting officer on their appearance as well in order to assist the clerk's office. The officer's badge number would also be helpful.
Once an attorney has taken these measures on behalf of his client, neither he nor the client needs to appear for the arraignment. That attorney should check the Virginia Court's website after 3:00pm on the date of the arraignment in order to verify that the Court has approved the trial or preliminary hearing date the attorney selected. Failing to do so, could result in the Court selecting another date and a litany of potential problems for both counsel and client.
If a defendant has not hired an attorney prior to the date of his arraignment, then there is still no need to panic. The defendant should simply appear at arraignment at the designated date and time. There, the judge will simply advise the defendant of the charges against him and ask if he wishes to seek his own counsel or apply for court-appointed counsel. If the defendant applies and qualifies for count-appointed counsel, then the judge will appoint an attorney to represent him and provide contact information. If the defendant wishes to seek to hire private counsel on his own, then the judge will set a trial date, preceded by a "review date." This review date is a deadline for the defendant to acquire an attorney. If he does not have an attorney by this date, he is required to appear before the judge again. If he fails to appear at this review date, he may be deemed to have waived his right to counsel. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD THE DEFENDANT TRY TO ADDRESS THE FACTS OF HIS CASE ON THE ARRAIGNMENT OR REVIEW DATE. Anything that is said by the defendant on these dates can be used against him, so there should be no mention of the merits of the case at that time.
In short, the best thing to do when you are facing a criminal charge in Arlington County General District Court is to seek out and hire a qualified criminal defense attorney who understands the particulars of the jurisdiction as soon as possible. Doing so can spare you extra court appearances, time, and stress in the long run.