Stage 1 – Charges Filed
- You or someone you love has been arrested and is being charged with a crime. This can be a difficult and scary time for any individual as they may not know what to do next. The most important thing to know and understand at this point in time is your 5th Amendment right to REMAIN SILENT. At this level no one is your friend other than the Defense Attorney so DO NOT SPEAK. You must remain respectful when speaking to the officers or other law enforcement, but be respectful in your declining to speak without an attorney present.
Stage 2 – District Court
1. Preliminary Arraignment
- At the arraignment the Defendant will be read specific charges that have been filed against him or her. The arraignment hearing is brief and to the point—of setting bail!
- The Magisterial District Judge will request personal information as to address, phone number, employment, and prior charges. This will be used in determining bail.
- At the arraignment the Defendant will have bail set and may make a request for bail reduction based upon the circumstances.
- A Defendant facing serious charges will chose to hire a lawyer to accompany them to ‘surrender’ to the Court. This improves the Defendant’s change to secure a lesser bail and remain out of jail!
2. Bail Set by District Judge
- Bail is an amount of money used by the Court to ensure the Defendant comes back to Court when required to do so. It is set by the Court based on a number of factors. Once set in a cash amount, posting bail is often the only method to get the Defendant home during the trial proceedings.
- A good Defense Attorney can get bail reduced or eliminated by showing Character references – Community support – Stable employment history – Memberships in religious or civic organizations – Surrendering the Defendant’s passport – Agree to electronic monitoring, etc. These factors can be presented to the Court before the amount is set.
3. Bail set by the Court can be addressed by the Defendant in several ways. These may include:
- Unsecured Bail / Release on Own Recognizance (ROR). If the Magisterial District Judge is convinced the Defendant is not a risk, he may release the Defendant on unsecured bail or ROR bail, releasing the Defendant on his ‘word’ that he will attend his next Court hearing and cease further criminal activity. This is a form of non-monetary bail.
- Cash Bail posted by Defendant. In cases where the Bail is low enough that Defendant (or his family) may have the resources to cover the total amount of Bail imposed, they may post the bail with the Bail with the Court. When Bail is posted by the Defendant, the Defendant can expect the bail money will be returned to them (less a small fee) on the conclusion of their court case.
- Surety Bond through Bondsman. In cases of high Bail, the Defendant may choose to hire a professional bondsman to post their Bail. This process is done by paying the bail bondsman a non-refundable percentage of the total bail—typically between 3% and 10% of the total bail being posted. While this choice can be costly, it may often be the only option for release once one’s bail has been set.
- Having an Attorney present at this Preliminary Arraignment can be critical to keeping the Defendant’s bail low and manageable. Paying an Attorney to arrange and attend the Defendant’s surrender often results in a lower bail amount, reducing the actual cost to post bail and offering the client a chance to return home and to work.
Generally, the rule-of-thumb is to expect arraignment to occur within two days after being arrested.
4. Once the arraignment is completed, the Defendant prepares for the Preliminary Hearing with or without an attorney.
5. Post arraignment:
- Ensure you have acquired legal representation.
- Ask questions frequently and be certain they are answered.
- Assist the attorney in preparing the defense by understanding every option available.
- Remember that THE DEFENDANT IS INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY.
Stage 3 – Attending the Preliminary Hearing
1. Preliminary Hearing
- This is typically the meeting ground of the prosecution and the defense. A good Defense Attorney will look for opportunities such as a plea bargain or to assess the strengths and weaknesses in the prosecution’s case during this stage of the criminal process.
- Pretrial motions for bail and other intangible factors of the case can be made at this stage as well.
- A good Defense Attorney will attempt to reduce or eliminate charges and if not possible will seek to negotiate with the District Attorney to obtain a plea bargain and a bail reduction to get their Client out of jail if incarcerated.
- Without cause, a Defense Attorney should NEVER waive a matter to Common Pleas Court without obtaining a negotiated offer or a bail reduction for his client.
- A good Defense Attorney will often schedule a Court Reporter, or stenographer, to transcribe or record all the testimony given by witnesses at the Preliminary Hearing. This recorded testimony can be crucial to impeaching witnesses at a Jury Trial should a case go that far.
- If a Preliminary Hearing occurs, the Magisterial District Judge will hear testimony and determine whether sufficient evidence exists to send the case to the Common Pleas level for trial.
- The Magisterial District Judge must determine whether a ‘Prima Facie’ case has been established. ‘Prima Facie'(latin for at first encounter or first blush) requires the Court to review, 1) Whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and, 2) Whether there is probable cause to believe the person in front of the court is the one who committed the crime. Rarely does the Magisterial District Judge overturn the prosecution and dismiss the case. In fact, the prosecution or Judge can add additional charges to the case at this hearing. The length of a Preliminary Hearing varies based upon the charges. The prosecution is only required to show “probable cause” at the Preliminary Hearing. No jury will be present. Cross examination of police officers or witnesses may occur
2. Plea Bargaining at the Preliminary Hearing
- Over 90% of all cases end in with a plea to some of the charges filed, and a plea-bargain or deal reached between the Defense Attorney and the District Attorney/Prosecutor is a common way in which this occurs. Plea-bargaining is an excellent way to avoid a potential stiff conviction in favor of an agreed upon lighter conviction. For instance, in a drug possession case, a Judge may be convinced to dismiss the charges in return for the Defendant’s successful completion of a rehabilitation program. Some Judges and Prosecutors are amenable to plea-bargaining, whereas others are not. Plea bargaining enables the Judges to move cases through the legal process quickly, ensures the Client has some certainty in the outcome of their case, and finally allows Prosecutors to rack up convictions.
- A plea bargain may result in a lighter sentence and completes the matter quickly.
- It is critical that the Attorney and the Client manage the details. Cases are won and lost in the details.
Stage 4 – Transition to the Court of Common Pleas
1. Information Filed
- Any case that is held to Court or waived at the Preliminary Hearing moves up to Common Plea Court (or ‘Big Court’).
- Charges are filed by the District Attorney into Court by way of a “Criminal Information” which simply states the charges and appropriate factual basis to the Court. This document is filed and becomes the lead document in the case before the Court of Common Pleas.
2. Formal Arraignment
- After the completion of the Preliminary Hearing, the next Court hearing in the criminal process is the Formal Arraignment held before the Court of Common Pleas. Along with Defendants from other cases, the Client is expected to attend or make arrangements with their Defense Attorney to address the filed Information.
- The Court expects the Defendants called to Formal Arraignment to enter a plea of ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not-Guilty’ to the charges listed.
- Important deadlines will also be given to the Defendants at that time. Time windows to request ‘Discovery’ of evidence and deadlines to file ‘Pre-Trial Motions’ are also given to the Defendant at this time.
- The Defendant will be provided with dates of his upcoming Status Conference and Pretrial Conference dates. The time period between these dates varies from County to County, but typically range between 45 and 60 days from Formal Arraignment.
3. Status Conference & Pre-Trial Conference
- Following Formal Arraignment, the Defendant will be given an opportunity to review the evidence in the case, negotiate terms of disposition and decide on a trial or a plea to the offenses. For Defendants who have retained a Defense Attorney, this will allow an opportunity for discussion in the case to be reached by counsel.
- Status Conference is the first hearing between the prosecution and the defense and takes place before a Common Pleas judge assigned to hear your case through its conclusion. If you have a lawyer you typically do not need to attend this Court hearing—a good Defense Attorney can address the Status Conference without the need to have the client attend. The Status Conference takes place approximately 45 days after Formal Arraignment. Discussions on the evidence, filings and issues in the case are presented by both the prosecution and defense. If additional time for evidentiary issues or filings is needed by the parties, an additional Status Conference may be granted by the Court and scheduled out 30 days.
- In some County Jurisdictions, a Pre-Trial Conference may be scheduled. A Pre-Trial Conference is another formal setting where plea bargaining and discussions toward trial preparation occurs. This hearing typically follows the Status Conference by 30 – 45 days, is the last hearing in which a case can be scheduled for a guilty plea hearing or be listed for trial. Although continuances (which allow an additional 30 days to consider the options in a case) can occur, the Court usually requires the Defendant to be prepared with a decision to plea the case or take it to Trial the following week. Consequently, the prosecution may offer alternative sentencing or a negotiated plea agreement at this stage.
- If a deal can be reached, the case may be scheduled to go before a Common Pleas Judge for a plea or admission into programs like A.R.D. The charges may be reduced to a lesser charge or even be dismissed.
- If more time is needed, the parties may ask for a ‘Continuance’ which will reschedule another Pre-Trial Conference at another date and time, usually 30 days out.
- If no agreement can be reached between the Defendant and the District Attorney then the Defense Attorney and his client will most likely make trial preparations.
- In Lancaster County, cases that have not been resolved in a timely manner are directed to a Call of the List. The ‘Call’ is final listing by the assigned Judge on the Friday eve of the trial term. The Defendant usually has only two options, to either plea out the case (with or without agreement) or be placed on a trial list to proceed to Trial the following Monday. This is not a list a Defendant wants to be on without an Attorney!
Stage 5 – Resolution of the Client’s Case before the Judge
In some form or another, the Defendant’s case will come to a conclusion before the Court of Common Pleas. Although only a summary of the many options available, the following are some of the different outcomes facing a Defendant at Common Pleas Court.
1. Non-Trial Disposition
- Diversionary Programs – Programs like Drug Court, Veteran’s Court, Mental Health Court, A.R.D. or Rule 586 are different ways that a case can have an alternate ending typical in most cases. Programs are available through the permission of the District Attorney and acceptance by of the Court which allow a case to end in a positive manner upon completion of certain conditions such as completing a treatment program, paying all costs and restitution, or even community service. While these programs are not appropriate in all situations or may not entirely dismiss charges against a Defendant, they should be considered in all situations prior to the following forms of resolution.
- Guilty Plea with a Plea Agreement – When the District Attorney and the Defense Attorney agree to plea guilty in exchange for a recommended sentence, a Plea Bargain occurs. Here the Judge simply considers whether to accept the agreed to sentence or reject it. If agreed, the sentence becomes final.
- Guilty Plea without an Agreement – Although a situation may occur where the District Attorney and the Defense Attorney cannot agree to terms, a Defendant still may plea ‘open’ to charges before the Court. When this occurs the Defendant pleads Guilty and, instead of agreeing to terms of a sentence, has the Judge decide the sentence in the case.
2. Jury Trial or Bench Trial
- If the Defendant denies involvement in the matter and chooses to have a trial it is of the utmost importance that they be sure that they are going into battle with the correct attorney. The correct attorney can make a difference between walking out the door as a free person or as an incarcerated individual and during the trial is not the time to determine whether your attorney is ready to go to battle for you.
- A Bench Trial is where the fact-finding is decided by the Judge. Rather than picking a Jury of one’s peers, the Defendant and his attorney present the facts in the case to the Judge who renders a verdict.
- A Jury Trial is where the fact-finding is decided by a Jury consisting of members of the community who hear the facts of the case. At the trial a decision will be reached as to the innocence or guilt of the Defendant. Unlike a plea-bargained settlement which completes the case prior to trial, a trial introduces risk for both the prosecution and defense. Neither side knows which side will win. The trial begins with the prosecution’s opening statement. The Defense Attorney may also present an opening statement at this time. The Prosecutor presents his case to support the charges and then rests. The Defense Attorney presents his case to refute the charges and then rests. Closing arguments by both the prosecution and defense conclude the presentation part of the trial. The jury then deliberates innocence and guilt.
3. Dismissal by Commonwealth
- In rare instances, the Commonwealth (the formal name for the prosecutor) may find itself in a situation where key evidence is lacking in a case. Whether it be a missing witness, mistake as to the actual evidence or even incorrect interpretation of the law, the Commonwealth attorney may decide to dismiss a case in the ‘interest of justice’ rather than see it through to trial. By filing a motion, The Commonwealth attorney may move to dismiss a charge rather than seek prosecution.
- Sometimes dismissal may be on condition of payment of Court Costs or Restitution (monetary damages) to the Victim, but such an opportunity to see charges dismissed is a rare but welcomed event.
Stage 6 – Sentencing by the Court
- Once either the guilty plea has been entered or the Defendant has been found guilty in Court, the Judge will be left to impose a sentence and apply a fine and costs of the prosecution on the Defendant at is what is called a sentencing hearing. Witnesses are generally allowed to speak, requesting either a lighter or stiffer sentence. The Defendant may make a statement to the court prior to the Court imposing its sentence.
- If the Defendant and his Attorney have agreed with the Commonwealth Attorney as to a plea agreement or terms of sentence in a case, the Judge simply decides on whether he will accept the sentence agreed to between the parties or not. This is most often the most desirable route to explore in the disposition of a case since the Defendant is aware of his actual sentence before he enters into to it.
- If a Jury Trial results in a guilty verdict, or if the Defendant has pled guilty without an agreement by the District Attorney as to sentence; the Judge will determine the sentence imposed on the Defendant. The Court may order a Pre-Sentence investigation to further consider the Defendant’s background or proceed immediately to a sentence in the matter.
- With the exception of mandatory sentences, Pennsylvania Judges are required to follow specific sentencing guidelines in every case. Sentence guidelines are based on the seriousness of the present offense and the prior record of the Defendant.
- Factors such as no criminal history, a good public record, and professional or personal responsibilities may persuade the judge to provide a lighter or heavier sentence.
- A sentence can consist of a Incarceration, Probation or a combination of the two. Fines, court costs and restitution for the Victim of the crime will also be imposed. Unless a sentence deferral is approved by the Court, incarceration usually occurs immediately following the sentence of the Court. Defendants are incarcerated at the County Prison for less serious offenses, or at a State Correctional Facility for more serious crimes where a sentence of a year or more is imposed.
- All Defendant’s facing a sentence of the Court are given their post-sentence rights, including appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania prior to or upon completion of their sentence.
Contact Miller Lyden P.C. today to help you through the criminal court process.