Criminal Case Process

Stage 1 - Charges Filed

1. Arrest

a. 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

a. At the arraignment the Defendant will be read specific charges that have been filed against him or her. The arraignment hearing is brief and quick.

b. The Magisterial District Judge will request personal information as to address, phone number, employment, and prior charges. This will be used in determining bail.

c. At the arraignment the Defendant will have bail set and may make a request for bail reduction based upon the circumstances.

2. Bail Set By District Judge

a. Bail is a method to get the Defendant home during the trial proceedings. Bail is an amount of money used by the Court to ensure the Defendant comes back to Court when required to do so.

b. 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.

c. The Court can present several bail release options. These may include:

i. Cash Bail. The Defendant is responsible for paying the entire amount of bail to be released. The Defendant will receive his bail back at the completion of all court appearances.

ii. Release On Own Recognizance. If the Magisterial District Judge is convinced the Defendant is not a risk, he may release the Defendant on his own recognizance, or his 'word' that he will attend his next Court hearing. This is a form of non-monetary bail.

iii. Surety Bond. The bail agent guarantees to the Court that they are responsible for the bond if the Defendant fails to appear. This option involves hiring a bondsman.

d. Generally, the rule-of-thumb is to expect arraignment to occur within two days after being arrested.

3. Once the arraignment is completed, the Defendant prepares for the Preliminary Hearing with or without an attorney.

4. Post arraignment:

a. Ensure you have acquired legal representation.

b. Ask questions frequently and be certain they are answered.

c. Assist the attorney in preparing the defense by understanding every option available.


Stage 3 - Attending the Preliminary Hearing

1. Preliminary Hearing

a. This is typically the meeting ground of the prosecution and the defense. A good Defense Attorney at this stage will look for opportunities such as a plea bargain or to assess the strengths and weaknesses in the prosecution's case in a hearing.

b. Pretrial motions for bail and other intangible factors of the case can be made at this stage as well.

c. 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.

d. 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.

e. 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.

f. 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.

g. 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

a. 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.

b. A plea bargain may result in a lighter sentence and completes the matter quickly.

c. 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

a. Any case that is held to Court or waived at the Preliminary Hearing moves up to Common Plea Court (or 'Big Court').

b. 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.

2. Formal Arraignment

a. 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.

b. The Court expects the Defendants called to Formal Arraignment to enter a plea of 'Guilty' or 'Not-Guilty' to the charges listed.

c. 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.

3. Status Conference & Pre-Trial Conference

a. Following Formal Arraignment, the Defendant will be given dates for upcoming Court appearances before a Common Pleas Judge. For Defendants who have retained a Defense Attorney, this will allow an opportunity for discussion in the case to be reached.

b. The Pre-Trial Conference is another formal setting where plea bargaining and discussions toward trial preparation occurs. The prosecution may offer alternative sentencing or a negotiated plea agreement at this stage.

c. 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.

d. 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.

e. 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.

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

a. 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.

b. Guity 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.

c. Guilty Plea without an Agreement - Although a situation may occur where the District Attorney and the Defence Attorney cannot agree to terms, a Defendant still may plea 'open' to charges before the Court. When this occurs the Defendant pleas 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

a. 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.

b. 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.

c. 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.

Stage 6 - Sentencing by the Court

1. Once either the guilty plea has been entered or the Defendant has been found guilty in a criminal trial the Judge will be left to make a determination of the length and type of punishment at 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 Law Associates today to help you through the criminal court process.

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Disclaimer: The material on this website is for informational purposes only. Miller Law Associates, Criminal Defense Attorney practices law exclusively in the State of Pennsylvania. Written materials should not be sent to the law offices of Miller Law Associates, Criminal Defense Attorney until you have spoken to, or otherwise communicated with our firm. Miller Law Associates, Criminal Defense Attorney cannot consider you a client until we have consulted and met with you personally, and an agreement toward representation is reached by both parties. Please keep in mind, that there are many different types of cases, all cases are unique and legal authority pertaining to every case can and does change. It is also important to remember that prior results, success or otherwise, cannot and does not guarantee similar outcomes with respect to any future matter in which any lawyer or law firm may be retained. To the extent that this website discusses past cases our firm has handled, or in any way mentions the firm or its services, Pennsylvania courts may deem this to be attorney advertising.

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