Navigating the Prince William County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court

By Benjamin Griffitts, Senior Attorney

In the world of criminal law in Virginia, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts oversee cases that involve juveniles (anyone under the age of 18 at the time of the offense) accused of crimes, or crimes committed by adults where a juvenile or a “family or household member” is the alleged victim. In Prince William County, the J&DR Court handles cases that take place in the County, as well as the cities of Manassas, Manassas Park, the Towns of Haymarket, Quantico, Dumfries, and Occoquan. In this post, I will briefly discuss the basics of cases where a juvenile is accused of a crime.

The primary role of the Court in any criminal case is to uphold the rule of law. If a person is found guilty of a crime, it is the responsibility of the court to impose a sentence that takes into consideration the appropriate punishment for the Defendant in relationship to what has been done, as well as the possibility of deterring the Defendant and others from committing similar acts in the future, or rehabilitating the Defendant to be a more productive member of society. In J&DR Court when it comes to the criminal conduct of juveniles, the Court often sees its role much more as rehabilitative—to teach the juvenile to learn from their mistakes and mature into adulthood.

When a juvenile is accused of committing a crime, the process can begin in a variety of ways. The juvenile can be arrested just like an adult. If that happens, they can be held at the Juvenile Detention Home until the next day court is in session, where a hearing is held to determine whether the juvenile can be returned home until their court date or not. If a juvenile is detained, the law requires that a hearing must be held within 21 days to review that status or resolve the case, and then every 21 days thereafter until the case is resolved.

The juvenile can also be served with a Petition. A petition is a summons that is delivered to the juvenile and one parent or legal guardian informing them of the charge and instructing them to appear in court. Then a trial date is set. Finally, a juvenile can be referred to diversion. Not every kind of criminal charge is eligible for diversion; however, for the offenses where diversion is offered, the juvenile receives a notice to meet with a court services employee who will give the juvenile assignments to accomplish to keep the incident from appearing in any kind of court or police record.

When a juvenile has a case before the Court, the same rights exist for him or her just as it would for an adult: the prosecution has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The exception to this deals with certain kinds of felony offenses where the prosecution requests to try the juvenile as an adult; in that case, the juvenile receives a “preliminary hearing” instead of a trial, where the court decides whether there is enough probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and the juvenile is the person who committed it. In those cases, a trial would take place in the Circuit Court. I will tackle that issue in a little more detail in a different post. For all other matters, whether the offense is a traffic infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony, the J&DR Court Judge makes the determination whether the prosecution has presented enough evidence to find a juvenile “delinquent” of the offense.

Because correcting unlawful behavior and teaching the Defendant a lesson often takes priority over punishment, the kinds of sentences that can be imposed upon a juvenile vary greatly. A judge can withhold findings of guilt and place juveniles on probation to provide incentive for the juvenile to accomplish certain tasks and demonstrate certain behaviors in order to earn a dismissal or reduction of the charge. A judge can impose community service, curfews, restrict the ability to obtain or keep a driver’s license or learner’s permit, or have them attend a class or program. Yes, the judge can also sentence a juvenile to time in the Juvenile Detention Home or impose a fine; in the most serious cases, a juvenile can be sentenced to a boot camp or juvenile justice program. The kind of punishment that a juvenile receives is often related to the juvenile’s, and the family’s, response to the initial charge. Judges want to see families take responsibility before court: imposing restrictions on cell phones, curfews, driving, chores, community services, etc., rather than just waiting to see what a judge is going to do.

Juvenile cases can be complicated. They involve Defendants who are often very immature and not fully grasping the weight of the events around them. If not properly handled, juvenile criminal cases can spiral out of control and result in long-term negative impact on the juvenile into adulthood. I regularly deal with adult criminal defendants who are still affected by juvenile offenses committed many years earlier.