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LEGAL TERMS

CRIMINAL LAW

Laws written by Congress and state legislators that make certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. By contrast, civil laws are not p... (more...)
Laws written by Congress and state legislators that make certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. By contrast, civil laws are not punishable by imprisonment. In order to be found guilty of a criminal law, the prosecution must show that the defendant intended to act as he did; in civil law, you may sometimes be responsible for your actions even though you did not intend the consequences. For example, civil law makes you financially responsible for a car accident you caused but didn't intend.

JURY NULLIFICATION

A decision by the jury to acquit a defendant who has violated a law that the jury believes is unjust or wrong. Jury nullification has always been an option for ... (more...)
A decision by the jury to acquit a defendant who has violated a law that the jury believes is unjust or wrong. Jury nullification has always been an option for juries in England and the United States, although judges will prevent a defense lawyer from urging the jury to acquit on this basis. Nullification was evident during the Vietnam war (when selective service protesters were acquitted by juries opposed to the war) and currently appears in criminal cases when the jury disagrees with the punishment--for example, in 'three strikes' cases when the jury realizes that conviction of a relatively minor offense will result in lifetime imprisonment.

CRIME

A type of behavior that is has been defined by the state, as deserving of punishment which usually includes imprisonment. Crimes and their punishments are defin... (more...)
A type of behavior that is has been defined by the state, as deserving of punishment which usually includes imprisonment. Crimes and their punishments are defined by Congress and state legislatures.

MCNAGHTEN RULE

The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wron... (more...)
The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wrong at the time he committed the crime. For example, a delusional psychotic who believed that his assaultive acts were in response to the will of God would not be criminally responsible for his acts.

AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer's penalty or punishment. For example, th... (more...)
Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer's penalty or punishment. For example, the crime of aggravated assault is a physical attack made worse because it is committed with a dangerous weapon, results in severe bodily injury or is made in conjunction with another serious crime. Aggravated assault is usually considered a felony, punishable by a prison sentence.

PROBABLE CAUSE

The amount and quality of information police must have before they can arrest or search without a warrant or that a judge must have before she will sign a searc... (more...)
The amount and quality of information police must have before they can arrest or search without a warrant or that a judge must have before she will sign a search warrant allowing the police to conduct a search or arrest a suspect. Reliable information must show that it's more likely than not that a crime has occurred and the suspect is involved.

CHARGE

A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evid... (more...)
A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evidence of wrongdoing. Formal charges are announced at an arrested person's arraignment.

SEARCH WARRANT

An order signed by a judge that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. The judge won't issue... (more...)
An order signed by a judge that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. The judge won't issue the warrant unless she has been convinced that there is probable cause for the search -- that reliable evidence shows that it's more likely than not that a crime has occurred and that the items sought by the police are connected with it and will be found at the location named in the warrant. In limited situations the police may search without a warrant, but they cannot use what they find at trial if the defense can show that there was no probable cause for the search.

ARREST WARRANT

A document issued by a judge or magistrate that authorizes the police to arrest someone. Warrants are issued when law enforcement personnel present evidence to ... (more...)
A document issued by a judge or magistrate that authorizes the police to arrest someone. Warrants are issued when law enforcement personnel present evidence to the judge or magistrate that convinces her that it is reasonably likely that a crime has taken place and that the person to be named in the warrant is criminally responsible for that crime.

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

Abdullah v. Com.

... RANDOLPH A. BEALES, Judge. The trial judge convicted Akili Amin Abdullah (appellant) of robbery, in violation of Code § 18.2-58, and misdemeanor assault while part of a mob, in violation of Code § 18.2-42. ... B. MISDEMEANOR ASSAULT WHILE PART OF A MOB. ...

Wade v. Com.

... POWELL, Judge. Nikkol Irene Wade (appellant) appeals from her conviction for misdemeanor destruction of property, in violation of Code § 18.2-137. ... ANALYSIS. The issue in this case is whether a person may be convicted of a misdemeanor as a principal in the second degree. ...

Woody v. Com.

... a warrant on the driving while intoxicated charge. The warrant recited that Woody was charged with a "Misdemeanor (Local)" and that Amherst County was the prosecuting entity. The warrant further alleged that Woody "did unlawfully ...