A special grand jury is convened to investigate any condition which tends to promote criminal activity in the community or which indicates malfeasance of governmental agencies or officials. This grand jury has subpoena powers and may summon persons documents or records needed in its investigation.
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The General District Court decides all criminal offenses involving ordinances, laws and by-laws of the county or city where it is located and all misdemeanors under state law. A misdemeanor is any charge which carries a penalty of no more than one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.
The Code of Virginia defines criminal offenses and sets penalties. For many offenses the penalty described is a fine. Fines collected for violations are paid into the treasury of the city town or county whose ordinance has been violated or into the State treasury for a violation of state law. In order to offset the cost of operating the courts, the General Assembly has established a processing fee which is charged to every convicted defendant. Monies obtained from this fee are paid into the state treasury.
The district courts do not conduct jury trials. All cases are heard by a judge. Each defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon consideration of evidence the judge decides the question of guilt or innocence and on a finding of guilt determines which penalty as set by the Code is proper and lawful.
The general district court decides civil cases in which the amount in question does not exceed $25,000. Civil cases vary from suits for damages sustained in automobile accidents to suits by creditors to receive payment on past due debts, including landlord/tenant. In Virginia claims for less than $4,500 can be initiated only in general district courts. A separate small claims division has jurisdiction over civil actions when the amount claimed does not exceed $5,000.
The general district court also hears cases in which a person is charged with a traffic infraction offense. If convicted of certain traffic violations, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles will assess points against the person's driver's license. This is in addition to any fine imposed by the judge.