The law firm has experienced criminal defense lawyers who can assist you from the time a criminal complaint is filed through the appeal process which may include post-conviction relief. We have learned it is critical to consult with a highly knowledgeable attorney to protect your civil rights and liberties and to help defend unfair or exaggerated charges. The defense of any criminal or civil case requires immediate attention in order that the facts and circumstances which serve as the basis for the arrest warrant issued can be investigated.
Generally, prior to an arrest, the police will file a complaint. Criminal complaints, whether filed by the police or privately, are initiated with the district justice/magisterial court. The allegations against the defendant are identified in the complaint and the complaint lists the crimes charged and a brief factual summary upon which the charges are based.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, each county has district justices/magistrates who are assigned a region over which they have jurisdiction. The district justice/magistrate level is the minor judiciary level in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. All criminal cases pass through the district justice/magistrate level and in the even the case is not dismissed at district justice/magisterial level, it proceeds through to the court of common pleas. The process followed after a criminal complaint is filed is as follows:
1. Arrest Warrant Issued
Once the complaint is filed, the presence of the defendant is secured voluntarily, by summons, or compelled, by arrest. The district justice will issue either a summons or a warrant of arrest, depending generally on the seriousness of the offense alleged. Less serious cases proceed with the issuance of a summons which provides notice of the defendant's scheduled preliminary hearing.
2. Preliminary Arraignment
At the preliminary arraignment the defendant provided with a copy of the criminal complaint and is further advised of his or her rights. A preliminary hearing is usually scheduled at the preliminary arraignment. Usually the district attorney does not appear at the preliminary arraignment. The specific charges against the defendant are read to the defendant.
3. Preliminary Hearing
The preliminary hearing is also normally convened before a district justice. At the Preliminary Hearing the Commonwealth must present a prima facie case, or in other words, they must show evidence that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is probably the perpetrator of that crime. The judge then determines whether sufficient evidence exists to send the case to the upper court for trial. The judge reviews whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and whether there is probable cause to believe the person in front of the court is the one who committed the crime.
Ordinarily a judge does not overturn the prosecution and dismiss the case. In fact, the prosecution or magistrate can add additional charges to the case at this hearing. Although the police officer may prosecute the preliminary hearing before the district justice, an assistant district attorney may appear and present the case on behalf of the Commonwealth. If a prima facie case is established, the matter will proceed to court. If a prima facie case is not presented, the magistrate will dismiss the case.
4. Information Filed
After the district justice determines there is a prima facie cause the magistrate district justice will send notice to the county clerk of courts who in turn will notify the district attorney. The district attorney's office will then file a formal charging document, called an information, with the clerk of courts. The information will specify in particular counts the offenses charged against the defendant. At this stage, the district attorney may exercise discretion and terminate the prosecution by declining to file an information or by adding or deleting charges.
5. Formal Arraignment
Once the formal charges are filed there is a formal arraignment which occurs before a judge of the court of common pleas. The defendant is provided with a copy of the information and advised of his rights, including his rights to file various pretrial pleadings. Generally, the district attorney is not represented at formal arraignment. All pretrial motions, including requests for a bill of particulars and discovery, and motions for continuance, severance or joinder, suppression, etc., should be filed within thirty days after the formal arraignment. It is the obligation of the district attorney's office to respond to the defendant's pretrial pleadings.
6. Pre-Trial Conference
The next proceeding is the pretrial conference. Generally, the defendant and his lawyer and an assistant district attorney will appear before the judge assigned to the case and the course of disposition will be determined. All other pretrial matters should also be resolved at the pretrial conference. The defendant may elect to plead guilty, or to proceed to a jury or non-jury trial.
7. Trial or Plea Disposition
A defendant entering a plea of not guilty may choose to be tried by a jury of twelve citizens or by the judge alone. At trial, the case for the Commonwealth is presented by an assistant district attorney who must establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is under no obligation to present evidence or testimony but may do so if he wishes. If tried by a jury, the jury must return a unanimous verdict; if tried non-jury, the judge must return the verdict. If a defendant is found not guilty, he will be immediately discharged. If found guilty, the defendant may be sentenced immediately or sentencing may be deferred pending a pre-sentence investigation into the defendant's background. If sentencing is deferred, the defendant is subsequently returned to court and sentenced; at any sentencing hearing, an assistant district attorney will appear and present the Commonwealth's position.
8. Jury Trial
A jury trial is the fact finding phase of the case. It is the in-court examination and resolution of a criminal 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 prosecution presents his case to support the charges and then rests. The defense 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.
9. Guilty Plea
A jury trial is the fact finding phase of the case. It is the in-court examination and resolution of a criminal 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 criminal defense attorney may also present an opening statement at this time. The prosecution presents his case to support the charges and then rests. The defense 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.
Sentencing in Pennsylvania varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the criminal process. Most often, sentences are at the judge's discretion; however, in Pennsylvania there are a number of mandatory minimum sentences that must be imposed if a defendant is convicted of a specified crime. At the time of sentencing, the judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report before determining the sentence. The parties may correct factual errors in the pre-sentence report and offer additional evidence relevant to the judge's sentencing decision. The judge will also consult the "sentencing guidelines" (established by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing as a reference for framing an appropriate sentence throughout the state, considering factors of the crime and the defendant's criminal background) to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. The judge may consider different alternatives, such as a fine, probation, community service, a sentence to jail or prison, or a combination. The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm.
Once sentenced, the defendant has a choice of seeking review in the trial court or through an appeal to an intermediate appellate court, called the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. If review is first sought in the trial court and denied, the defendant may then appeal to the Superior Court. If the defendant's appeal to the Superior Court is unsuccessful, the defendant has a discretionary appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The district attorney's office will answer the defendant's appeal by filing the appropriate responsive pleading.
Our lawyers are skilled criminal trial lawyers who have been successful at trial, negotiating reductions in charges, waivers to mandatory minimum sentences, alternatives to jail time, probation without a verdict, boot camp for offenders (when eligible) and other options that mitigate the consequences of a guilty plea or crime conviction especially when there have been violations of constitutional rights on the part of the charging officers.