First Trial as a Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney
Years ago as a newly minted associate at a general practice litigation firm, I was exposed to all facets of litigation. An area that immediately caught my interest was criminal law. New associates generally start off their criminal law careers small, working their way up from traffic cases and lower class misdemeanors before handling more serious offenses like DUI’s, drug offenses, and violent crimes. I was no different, having negotiated dozens of traffic infractions, accident cases, and reckless driving matters before being handed my first solo DUI.
The client was a longtime client of the firm and I was under strict instructions by the client that nothing more than conviction for a minor moving violation was acceptable. After thoroughly researching the case law, talking with the client and the arresting officer, and visiting the scene of the alleged traffic violation, I was convinced that I had discovered the young lawyer’s nirvana: the perfect intersection of law and fact to present to the prosecutor, who would invariably see the wisdom of my argument and reduce the charge to its appropriate traffic offense, or dismiss the matter entirely. The law in question was the case of Commonwealth v. King, holding that mere movement in a lane, without breaking the white lines or disregarding other traffic laws, is insufficient as a matter of law for initiating a traffic stop. The facts supported the law as the driver had swung wide, but within the lane, on a banking stretch of road on a rainy night, then corrected to the other side of the lane, but never breaking the white line. Done and done, or so I thought.
The prosecutor, perhaps detecting my relative inexperience, declined to nolle prosequi the charge. I was shocked. Why couldn’t she see what I saw? Instead, she maintained that the client had the option to take a plea deal that would suspended all jail time, but still be a DUI, or go to trial. My client was initially hesitant. I advised the client that the law and facts were on our side, but that the client would likely need to testify if the officer’s testimony was sufficient to survive my motion to strike the evidence. The client agreed to go to trial after being reassured about the right to appeal de novo in the Circuit Court if the judge failed to agree with my reasoning.
As it turned out, the general district court judge allowed the case to proceed and my client testified as to driving behavior, the client’s lack of impairment, and the defects in the officer’s report of the field sobriety tests. The judge dismissed the matter even before I could return to my table after closing argument, offering in the ruling that the case probably should not have made it past the motion to strike, but that it was good to see a young attorney try a case properly for once. My client was overjoyed that the system worked as it should and my career decision to be a Virginia criminal defense lawyer was cemented.