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Virginia Criminal Law: An Overview

Virginia is one of the safest states in the U.S. It ranks 46th in violent crimes and is the eighth safest state in 2016. None of its cities rank in the nation's top 100 cities with the highest violent crime rates. However, Richmond, Virginia has the state's highest violent crime rate of all of its cities at 594.1 violent crimes per 100,000 people. Richmond also ranks as sixth in the top 30 murder capitals in the U.S. with Newport News and Norfolk close behind.

Overall, violent crime rates have been in decline in Virginia since 2006.

Virginia Felonies and Misdemeanors

Every state is free to define its own penal laws as long as the state laws remain constitutional. Virginia, like most other states, classifies crimes as felonies and misdemeanors. Traffic infractions are not classified as crimes in Virginia, though.

Felonies are the most serious criminal charges. They include drug trafficking, murder, rape, and other heinous crimes. There are six classes of felonies in Virginia that impose penalties of scaling severity. At minimum, felons are charged with more than one year of imprisonment and up to $2,500 in fines. The most severe felony penalties are death or life imprisonment plus up to $100,000 in fines.

Misdemeanors are less serious criminal charges than felonies. They include minor drug possession crimes, stalking, vandalism, and other crimes. There are four classes of misdemeanors in Virginia. Minimum penalties include up to a $250 fine while maximum penalties include up to a $2,500 fine and/or up to one year in jail.

Capital Punishment in Virginia

Virginia still uses capital punishment as a penalty for Class 1 Felonies. Felons who are sentenced to death are given the choice of death by electrocution or lethal injection. (Lethal injection is the default method if no choice is made.)

In 2014, Virginia was outranked as the state with the second highest number of executions by Oklahoma. This was likely because of a recent trend of juries placing a higher burden of proof on prosecutors before issuing death penalties.

Virginia DUI Laws

In Virginia, driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication is illegal. If a driver who is subjected to chemical testing during a traffic stop registers at 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content (BAC) or higher, he or she is illegally impaired. If a driver seems visibly impaired by drugs or medication, he or she is also considered illegally impaired.

A driver who is charged with driving under the influence (DUI) in Virginia can face minimum penalties like a $250 fine and a one-year license revocation. Penalties scale upward with successive DUI charges and higher BAC levels.

Criminal Record Expungement in Virginia

Criminal records cannot be destroyed in Virginia. However, they can be sealed and removed from public access in a process called expungement. Criminal charges that are eligible for expungement include those that were acquitted, dismissed (nolle prosequi), absolutely pardoned, or used an individual's name in error. In general, convictions cannot be expunged.

Juvenile criminal records (excluding felony convictions) are automatically expunged annually. Juvenile motor vehicle violations are only eligible for expungement after an individual's 29th birthday.

Contact a Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney

Anyone facing criminal charges in Virginia has the right to mount a vigorous defense. A qualified Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney familiar with local criminal procedures and laws can be a crucial advocate.

Make sure you talk with an attorney about your case and your needs before hiring one. Most criminal defense lawyers should be able to handle any misdemeanor or low-level crime. Not all attorneys are qualified to handle serious charges.

A qualified criminal defense attorney could mean the difference between going to jail and going free.

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