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Criminal Law Basics

What is a crime?

A crime is an act that violates the law either by doing something the law says you are not to do or by not doing something the law says you must do.

What if someone doesn't know the law and commits a crime?

The person is still guilty of a crime. The statement “ignorance of the law is no excuse” is an ancient legal doctrine. If this seems unfair, think about what would happen: not knowing about the law could be used to excuse any action.

Are all crimes the same?

Crimes are not all the same. Crimes are organized into two main classifications: felonies and misdemeanors.

A felony is a serious crime punishable by death or a term of imprisonment in a state or federal prison for at least one year and a possible fine.

A misdemeanor is a lesser crime punishable by local jail time of not more than one year and/or a possible fine. Some acts may either be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime and the degree of the criminal act.

What are the punishments for felonies in Virginia?

Felonies are organized into categories called classes for the purpose of sentencing. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-9) Felony classifications are listed below in order of the seriousness of the punishment.

Class 1 felony: Death, if the person so convicted was 18 years of age or older at the time of the offense and is not determined to be mentally retarded; or imprisonment for life, and a possible fine of not more than $100,000. If the person was less than 18 years of age at the time of the offense or is determined to be an individual with intellectual disability; the punishment will be imprisonment for life without parole and a fine of not more than $100,000.

Class 2 felony: Imprisonment for 20 years to life, and a possible fine of not more than $100,000.

Class 3 felony: Imprisonment for five to 20 years, and a possible fine of not more than $100,000.

Class 4 felony: Imprisonment for two to 10 years, and a possible fine of not more than $100,000.

Class 5 felony: Imprisonment for one to 10 years, or confinement in jail for not more than 12 months, and/or a possible fine of not more than $2,500.

Class 6 felony: Imprisonment for one to five years, or confinement in jail for not more than 12 months, and/or a possible fine of not more than $2,500.

(Code of Virginia § 18.2-10)

What are the punishments for misdemeanors in Virginia?

Misdemeanors are classified for the purposes of sentencing. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-9) The four classes of misdemeanors are listed below in order of the severity of the punishment.

Class 1 misdemeanor: Confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and/or a possible fine of not more than $2,500.

Class 2 misdemeanor: Confinement in jail for not more than six months and/or a possible fine of not more than $1,000.

Class 3 misdemeanor: A fine of not more than $500.

Class 4 misdemeanor: A fine of not more than $250.

(Code of Virginia § 18.2-11)

Unclassified Offenses: Any misdemeanor for which no punishment or no maximum punishment is prescribed by statute shall be punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor (Code of Virginia § 18.2-12).

What is the difference between a prison and a jail?

Jails are local correctional facilities, operated by localities; regional jails are operated by groups of localities. Persons in jails are either awaiting trial and/or final sentencing, or have been sentenced to confinement of no more than 12 months. 

Prisons are correctional facilities run by the state or federal government. Persons in state prisons have broken state laws and have been sentenced to more than 12 months. Persons in federal prisons have broken federal laws.

What is a “capital” offense?

A capital offense, or “high crime,” is any criminal charge that is punishable by death, as in “capital punishment.” Virginia is a capital punishment state. This means offenders may be executed. Examples of capital crimes include, but are not limited to, murder for hire, murder of a law enforce ment officer, murder by a prisoner, multiple killings, murder arising from a drug distribution crime, and killing a child less than 14 years old by a person 21 years or older.

At what age can a juvenile be tried as an adult in Virginia?

A juvenile aged 14 or older may be tried as an adult if he or she commits a crime that would be a felony if committed by an adult. (Code of Virginia § 16.1-269.1) In determining whether a juvenile will be tried as an adult, the court examines many factors including the seriousness of the crime and the juvenile’s role in the crime. If tried as an adult and found guilty, the juvenile may be incarcerated in prison and his or her criminal records become permanent.

Are there other consequences for committing a crime?

There are many other consequences that are sometimes not recognized until later. In addition to penalties imposed by the court, such as fines and jail or prison sentences, someone who breaks the law:

  • develops a criminal record;

  • embarrasses his or her family and friends;

  • loses the opportunity to hold certain jobs;

  • loses the opportunity to serve in the armed services; and

  • may lose driving privileges.

Adults convicted of a felony:

  • lose their right to vote;

  • lose their right to possess a firearm; and

  • lose their right to run for public office.

Juveniles who break the law:

  • embarrass their families and friends;

  • may have driving privileges suspended or delayed;

  • may be disqualified from receiving awards or scholarships;

  • may not be accepted at their colleges of choice;

  • may not be able to enlist in the armed services; and

  • may lose the opportunity to hold certain jobs.