The Virginia Criminal Justice System
Below, Thomas Soldan, a criminal lawyer in Virginia, answers questions about the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
What common mistakes do individuals make in criminal cases?
Thomas Soldan: Often unrepresented people walk in and plead guilty to an offense when they may have facts that a judge could have considered as mitigation for their particular offense. They don’t get a chance to consider that because they enter a plea very quickly and then they argue about sentencing, not about the underlying facts. People, especially unrepresented people, rush into their cases without exploring their options. It’s always a great idea to explore what options may be available, either by statute, by local procedure, or by having someone advocate on their behalf. Impatience is one of the most common mistakes I see. For people who are represented, their attorney will typically give them some instructions and guidance, but the attorney can only help someone if they want to be helped. Not listening to the attorney or following their instructions would also be mistakes. The last major mistake is not being forthright and open with your attorney regarding factual aspects of your case or your background that may be important. It may not seem important, or there may be something that the client is embarrassed about, but the attorney will hold that in the strictest of confidence and will only use information as they feel appropriate, with your permission and what’s necessary to your case. People need to trust in the attorney-client privilege and know that their attorney does have their best interests in mind. The most common mistake is when a person talks to someone who doesn’t have their best interests in mind without the guidance of an attorney, whether that person is an investigator, a third party, a prosecutor, or even a charge. An attorney can help the client determine who has their best interests in mind and who doesn’t. Talking to someone who doesn’t have your best interests in mind without an attorney present is certainly a common mistake.
Do you foresee any big changes in criminal defense law from a public policy perspective that could change how people’s cases might be tried?
Thomas Soldan: In Virginia, the general policy is to take discretion out of the hands of prosecutors and judges and to codify things, for example by having certain requirements in DUI cases. If someone is found guilty of DUI in Virginia, there are many steps that they have to take, regardless of the facts of their specific case or their specific background. There are mandatory fines, mandatory classes, and mandatory losses of licenses. Something that’s changing in the policy is more mandatory punishments to unify the criminal justice system. It’s happening with other, more serious offenses as well. These types of codifications and mandatory requirements are not going away; they are getting stricter and more demanding as the policy of being tough on crime becomes more widespread. For example, one of the issues in the news lately is marijuana decriminalization and legalization. That trend is not consistent with Virginia as far as how they pursue marijuana. Our marijuana laws that are on the books are very strictly enforced. They remain strict and there’s really no public policy push to change that in Virginia.