Thomas Soldan on Virginia Misdemeanor and Felony Charges
The following is excerpted from an interview with Virginia criminal lawyer Thomas Soldan. He answers questions about misdemeanor and felony charges in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
What are the main differences between misdemeanor and felony charges?
Thomas Soldan: In Virginia, the main difference between felonies and misdemeanors is the severity of the offense. Virginia is governed by a combination of statutory law and common law offenses. Under common law, felonies were more serious offenses, punishable sometimes even by death, and misdemeanors were minor offenses that were punishable by a fine. Since 1950, Virginia has had a codified criminal justice system, and in our current code of Virginia there are two main divisions in the various offenses; misdemeanors and felonies. The main difference between felonies and misdemeanors, in addition to the severity of the penalties, now is how they are handled and where they are handled. Misdemeanors are generally handled in general district court and can then be appealed to Circuit Court. Felonies may originate in general district court or Circuit Court, but the ultimate finding of guilty or not guilty is always going to happen in the latter court. The penalty structure is also different. Misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum of one year in local jail, and felonies are punishable by carrying prison terms with the Department of Corrections in Virginia and not the local jail. Those are the main differences between felonies and misdemeanors. Most of the more serious offenses in Virginia are felonies. They include controlled substance possession, more serious types of assault, property offenses of burglary or robbery, larceny of anything valued over $200, and destruction of property over $1,000. Those are all felony offenses, in addition to manslaughter and murder, etc. The misdemeanors are everything from very serious traffic offenses to assault to marijuana possession.
What are the most common types of misdemeanor cases that you handle?
Thomas Soldan: There are two branches of misdemeanors that I handle most often. The first are offenses that arise out of traffic stops. In Virginia, offenses such as reckless driving, DUI, and driving on a suspended license are all misdemeanor that are part of our criminal code or traffic code. That’s the first branch of misdemeanors that I handle on a daily basis, those that involve traffic or driving in some respect. The other branch is the petty criminal or misdemeanor criminal offenses, and those include larceny of an item under $200 in value, marijuana possession, and assault. The average citizen is much more likely to find themselves accused of committing a misdemeanor offense, rather than a felony offense. Someone could be charged with a misdemeanor and to simply be charged is not the end of the road. Our system of justice is governed by the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty, which means that you’re charged with an offense and then it goes to a court of justice. A charge does not necessarily mean you should be convicted of the offense. The two types of misdemeanor offenses that I handle most are traffic-based offenses and petty crimes.
What are the most common types of felony cases that you handle?
Thomas Soldan: The three most common felony offenses that people find themselves involved with are property crimes, drug offenses, and fraud-based crimes. In Virginia, if the value of the items stolen or property damaged is alleged to be over $200, it’s a felony offense. That can be anything from a larceny type of offense, fraud, a bad check, uttering a check, or prescription fraud. Those are all felony offenses, and there is a high rate of these types of offenses. In addition, anything that is a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance, since those are typically drugs of abuse, is going to result in a felony offense, whether we are taking about simple possession of the drugs or distribution. Simple possession of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, for example, are all felony offenses, regardless of the quantity or the type of possession, whether it’s for personal use or distribution. Distribution and trafficking of drugs are more serious felony offenses. The other realm of felony offenses are more serious larceny offenses. For example, shoplifting items worth over $200 is a felony offense. Entering a home with the intent to take property can be a felony offense. Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle could be a felony offense. Some of these offenses can also include lesser misdemeanor offenses, but in general they are felony offenses.
What is the difference between a class five and a class six felony?
Thomas Soldan: Because class five and class six felonies are punished with similar severity to misdemeanors, they are often thought of as enhanced versions of misdemeanors. The penalty for those class five and class six felonies could be a few years of incarceration in the state penitentiary or a term of imprisonment in the local jail for up to 12 months along with a fine. The maximum penalty for a class five felony is up to 10 year in prison, while the maximum penalty for a class six felony is up to 5 years in prison. Both share the alternative punishment of a potential jail sentence and/or a fine. That determination can be made by a judge at sentencing, or, if that felony is presented to a jury, the jury also gets information on their sentencing options.
Why is it important to hire an attorney when charged with a misdemeanor?
Thomas Soldan: A misdemeanor offense is a serious matter. Being charged with any criminal offense is a serious matter. It’s not simply going to go away by going to court and explaining things. There are procedures to be followed. There will be police officers involved, and potentially prosecutors. To have someone on your side who is professionally trained in the defense of these cases and knows the law and the local jurisdictions is immensely important. As a criminal defense attorney, I know the criminal laws as well as procedure, rules of evidence, and I have local relationships, as well. I know what is considered more egregious in different jurisdictions, the different nuances of offenses, and what those offenses translate to in real terms. It’s very easy for someone who is not as familiar with the criminal justice system to look on the Internet and see that an offense carries a possibility of up to one year in jail, but they don’t know what else that means. They don’t know if there is a likelihood that they will go to jail. There are cases in which people don’t go to jail on a first offense and a fine is more appropriate, or something in between. Certain offenses have other dispositions that may be available. It may be that the officer violated their rights in obtaining evidence or obtaining a statement. All those things are reasons why someone should have a criminal defense attorney on their side.