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Legal Basics

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What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor charge?

A felony is a major crime that may be punished with a minimum of one year in jail or prison. A misdemeanor is a less serious crime that is punishable by confinement in the city jail for a maximum of one year, a fine of not more than $2,500, or both. Felony cases may require multiple court appearances whereas misdemeanor cases generally require a single appearance in court. For more information on the criminal court process, click here.

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Why am I a witness? I didn’t see the crime occur.

Witnesses are not limited to “eyewitnesses.” Witnesses may be called because they actually saw or heard a crime occur, but they also may know something about a piece of evidence, or may possess information that contradicts another witness’ testimony. You may not think that what you know about the case is significant; however, small pieces of information are often required to determine what really happened. If you want to know why you are testifying in a particular case, ask the prosecutor or your victim/witness assistant; there is probably a good reason.

Please keep in mind that your presence and willingness to testify may be the deciding factor in determining what will be done in the case. Many defendants often hope that you or other witnesses will not show up. Sometimes, your mere presence at the courthouse before the trial may be enough for the defendant to plead guilty.

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What if the defense attorney contacts me?

In representing his/her client, a defense attorney may contact you and want to talk about the case. You may discuss the case with the defense if you wish, but you are not required to do so. Please remember that if you do choose to talk to anyone about your case, you should always request proper identification and an explanation of the interview’s purpose.

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I was issued a subpoena for court. What happens if I don’t show up?

If you have not been excused from your court appearance by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, an unexcused failure to appear on your court date could result in your being fined or jailed for contempt of court. Please contact the Victim/Witness Office in advance if you cannot come to court on the date required.

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What if my employer won’t let me come to court?

If you are lawfully subpoenaed to court, an employer cannot prevent court attendance. When appropriate, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office will contact your employer to discuss the importance of your role as a witness. We can also provide you with a note confirming the days/hours when you were in court.

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Can I drop charges?

If the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office proceeds with your case, you can no longer drop the charges. Only the prosecutor assigned to your case may request a dismissal of the charges.

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What is a preliminary hearing, and do I need to be there?

A preliminary hearing is a legal process where the judge decides if there is enough evidence to send a defendant’s charges to the Grand Jury. The judge, defendant, defendant’s attorney, the prosecutor, and any necessary victims or witnesses are present at the proceeding. The prosecutor must prove to the judge that there is enough evidence to show that a crime has been committed. This involves putting on a minimal amount of evidence, in other words, enough evidence to justify further proceedings. If the prosecution establishes sufficient evidence, the case is certified to the Grand Jury.

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What is an advisement and why does the victim/witness NOT have to be present?

An advisement date is a date for the defendant to appear before a judge to be informed of any charge/charges brought against him/her and to be advised of his/her right to have a trial. The judge will also advise the defendant of the right to have an attorney, and if the defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the judge will appoint one for him/her. The defendant is the only person that needs to be present for the advisement hearing. There will be NO evidence heard by the judge at this court event; therefore, the victim and/or witnesses do not need to be there.

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What is a grand jury and why does the victim/witness NOT need to be present?

The grand jury consists of a panel of citizens summoned by the Circuit Court to review any criminal charges brought against the defendant (an indictment) and to hear evidence from grand jury witnesses. The grand jury’s role is to decide if there is sufficient evidence to go forward with a trial at the Circuit Court level. Grand jury witnesses are usually made up of lieutenants from the police department who present evidence from their police reports to the grand jury for review. Victims and/or witnesses are not needed for this court appearance; the defendant is not present for this hearing either.

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Why are some misdemeanor cases not assigned to a prosecutor, leaving the victim/witness without legal representation at the court hearing?

All misdemeanor cases that come into the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office are reviewed by a Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. Due to the large volume of misdemeanor warrants received, it is not possible for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to be involved in every misdemeanor case. The Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney makes the decision as to whether or not our office will be involved in the case, based on the warrant and any available information. If an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney is not assigned to the case and a private attorney is not hired to represent the defendant, the case will be heard by a trial judge. At the trial, the judge will ask you questions about the incident. If you have any additional witnesses that saw the incident or know something about the case, you will need to contact the General District or Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court clerk’s office (depending on which court is hearing your case) to have additional witnesses subpoenaed for the trial. DO NOT assume that a police officer has been subpoenaed or that the officer who responded to the crime scene subpoenaed witnesses for your case. You may contact the clerk’s office to make sure all necessary witnesses have been subpoenaed.

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