It is important for you to understand the Pennsylvania criminal court process once you are charged with a crime. For most people, being arrested and charged with a crime is the most stressful experience of their lives. Furthermore, a criminal conviction can often result in the loss of your employment, reputation and freedom.
In addition, a criminal conviction can have a devastating impact on your family, especially if they rely on you for financial support. Even those facing criminal charges as a 1st time offender can face severe life-long consequences as a result of a conviction for a criminal offense.
Why Hiring an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney is Important
Having an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney on your side can lessen many of your concerns and ensure that your rights and freedom are protected. I can help you if you are charged with a crime and facing the criminal justice system.
PA Criminal Defense Lawyer
I have over a decade of experience providing skilled and aggressive representation to individuals facing criminal charges in Bucks County, Montgomery County and the surrounding counties. Contact me at (215) 752-5282 for a free initial consultation or fill out the confidential initial contact form for an immediate response. Appointments are available after business hours and on weekends.
What are the Stages in a Criminal Case?
You are considered to be under arrest when the police take you into their custody. The police must believe that you have committed a crime before an arrest takes place. The police may make a warrantless arrest if a crime has been committed in their presence. In addition, the police may make an arrest without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime.
In Pennsylvania, most misdemeanor and certain felony offense charges are initiated through the filing of a criminal complaint. The criminal complaint will often contain a summons and a notice to appear in court. In cases involving serious felony offenses, the police will usually obtain an arrest warrant for the accused. The police will either take the accused into custody under the warrant or make arrangements for the accused to surrender to the police at a designated location.
The Booking Process
The booking process will take place after the accused is taken into custody following an arrest for a felony or misdemeanor offense. The booking procedure creates the official arrest record of the case. For those individuals who are out of custody and subject to a summons to appear in court for a misdemeanor or felony offense, the booking process will usually take place before or immediately after the preliminary hearing.
The booking process will occur at the police department, sheriff’s department or other law enforcement agency. The accused will be required to submit to a mug shot, fingerprinting and a body search as part of the process. Law enforcement officials will run a background check for any existing warrants on the accused and may require the accused to submit to DNA testing.
First Appearance in Court
Individuals charged with a Pennsylvania state crime and taken into custody by law enforcement officials must be brought before a magisterial district judge for the first appearance in court within 72 hours of the arrest. The first appearance constitutes the initial arraignment of the accused on the charges filed in the case. The accused will be formally advised of the charges against him or her at the first appearance. The district judge will also schedule a date for a preliminary hearing and set bail in the case.
Posting Bail after the Initial Court Appearance
Individuals charged with a crime in Pennsylvania are entitled to release on bail unless the punishment for the crime could be life in prison or the death penalty. The district judge can set bail in the form of secured bond, unsecured bond, released on recognizance (ROR), percentage bail or “straight cash” bail. The district judge also has the authority to set non-monetary conditions on the bail order. I am familiar with the bail procedures in Bucks County, Montgomery County and the surrounding counties. I can guide you and your family through the bail process after your initial appearance in court.
At the preliminary hearing stage, the prosecutor has the burden of establishing prima facie evidence of all the elements of the offenses with which the accused is charged. The preliminary hearing is usually held at the magisterial district court in the town or municipality where the alleged offense took place.
The prima facie standard requires the prosecutor to establish to the district judge that more likely than not a crime has been committed and more likely than not the accused committed the crime. The prosecutor has a very low burden of proof to meet at this stage of the case. If the prosecutor meets the prima facie burden of proof for each offense at the preliminary hearing, the district judge will bound the charges over for trial.
The formal arraignment will occur if the prosecution satisfied its burden of proof at the preliminary hearing or if the accused waived his or her right to a preliminary hearing. A formal arraignment will also be scheduled if the accused was considered a fugitive at the time of the scheduled preliminary hearing. The formal arraignment is held in the Court of Common Pleas in the county where the alleged crime occurred.
At the formal arraignment, the prosecutor will file the formal charging document or criminal information placing the accused on notice regarding the specific charges he or she is facing. The arraignment judge will advise the accused of certain constitutional protections in the criminal trial process and request the formal entry of a guilty or not-guilty plea. The formal arraignment also triggers the beginning of certain procedural deadlines for the filing of various pre-trial motions, including the Motion for Discovery and the Motion to Suppress Evidence.
Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 573 requires that the defendant or the lawyer for the defendant file a formal request for discovery within 14 days of the date of the formal arraignment. Under the discovery rule, the prosecutor must turn over materials within its possession or control that may call into question the guilt of the defendant or that may impact his or her own punishment. This type of material is often referred to as exculpatory evidence or “Brady” material. It is critical to have an experienced criminal defense attorney review the discovery provided in your case to ensure that the prosecutor is not withholding establishing your innocence.
Application for Pre-Trial Diversion Programs
Pennsylvania county prosecutors offer pre-trial diversion programs for certain first-time offenders charged with lower-level non-violent offenses. Individuals who are accepted into one of the first-time offender programs will have their case diverted from the criminal justice system pending completion of the program.
1st time Offender Programs in Pennsylvania
Common pre-trial diversion programs include Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD), Section 17, Section 18, and Section 586. Individuals who successfully complete the first-time offender program are eligible to petition the court for expungement of the records of their case. Admission into the Section 17, Section 18, or Section 586 programs will usually occur at the first pre-trial conference or first trial listing of the case. Some counties schedule admission into the ARD program on a specified day on the court schedule. I can determine if you are eligible for any of the Pennsylvania 1st time offender programs for your case.
Bucks County Youthful Offender Program
The Bucks County Youthful Offender Program is administered through the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and is available to eligible young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. The program is focused on 1st time felony offenders who have completed a comprehensive screening process for admission into the program. The district attorney’s office must conclude that an applicant will benefit from the program for admission to be approved.
Young adults admitted into the program will be required to complete a 30-day wilderness program while their pending criminal case is placed on hold. The wilderness program will integrate outdoor survival skills with various life skills to promote the rehabilitation of the youthful offender.
Individuals who successfully complete the wilderness program will be eligible to have their felony charges dismissed when they return to court for the final disposition of their case. I have extensive experience with the Bucks County Youthful Offender Program application process and procedures. I can determine whether you or your love one will qualify for the program.
In many counties in Pennsylvania, a pre-trial conference is scheduled after the formal arraignment. The pre-trial conference allows the defendant’s lawyer and the prosecutor to advise the trial judge of the status of the case. The trial judge will want to know whether the case is proceeding to trial or will be resolved through a plea agreement or other pre-trial disposition. The defendant’s lawyer can also advise the judge of any outstanding pre-trial issues that require resolution by the court. Some counties permit the accused to enter a guilty plea and be sentenced on the date of the pre-trial conference.
Negotiated Plea Agreement
Some cases may proceed past the pre-trial conference stage and resolve before a trial through the completion of a negotiated plea agreement between the defense counsel and the prosecutor. Most counties require that a defendant formally enter a guilty plea under the terms of a plea agreement at the next scheduled pre-trial conference or trial listing in the case. The sentencing judge must approve of the terms and conditions of the plea agreement. It is extremely rare for a sentencing judge to refuse to accept a negotiated plea agreement in a criminal case. I can review the facts and evidence in your case to determine if a negotiated plea agreement will result in the best resolution of your case.
A criminal trial in Pennsylvania can take place before a jury, or the defendant can waive his or her right to a jury trial and allow a judge to decide the case. To succeed in gaining a conviction in the case, the prosecutor must prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt applies to every element of every crime charged in the case.
A trial conducted before a judge instead of a jury is often referred to as a “bench trial” or a “waiver trial.” In a bench trial, the lawyer for the accused and the prosecutor will present evidence supporting their theory of the case to the presiding judge. In a jury trial, the lawyer for the accused and the prosecutor will present evidence supporting their theory of the case to 12 members of a jury. The trial judge will instruct the jurors on the proper legal standard to apply to the evidence before the jury deliberates and renders a verdict.
Both the defense counsel and the prosecutor may file various pre-trial motions before the trial date. Pre-trial motions filed by the attorney of for the accused may include a Motion for Dismissal of Charges for Violation of the Speedy Trial Rule, Motion for Suppression of Evidence, Motion for Severance, Motion for Change of Venue, Motion to Disqualify the Judge, Motion for Continuance of Trial, Motion to Quash the Criminal Charges, Motion to Quash the Preliminary Hearing Transcript or a Motion to Transfer Proceedings to Juvenile Court.
The prosecutor will often file a Motion to Consolidate Criminal Informations prior to the commencement of the trial. This motion is typically filed by the prosecutor to join co-defendants in a single trial and commonly occurs in cases involving large-scale drug trafficking operations. Both the attorney for the accused and the prosecutor may also file a pre-trial Motion in Limine. A Motion in Limine is a formal legal filing requesting that the trial judge limit or preclude the introduction of specific evidence during the trial.
Jury selection is conducted by the lawyer for the accused and the prosecutor and is overseen by the trial judge. In most counties in Pennsylvania, the the attorney for the accused and the prosecutor are permitted to individually question jurors to determine whether they can be fair and impartial in evaluating the evidence and rendering a verdict in the case. Potential jurors who are biased toward the prosecution or defense will be excused from the jury pool and will not be considered for service as jurors in the case. The case will proceed to opening arguments once the appropriate number of jurors and alternates has been seated.
The Prosecutor’s Opening Statement
The prosecution bears the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt throughout the trial and is first to present an opening argument to the jury. The prosecution’s opening statement will generally be an outline of the evidence it intends to present during the trial to prove that the accused is guilty of the criminal charges filed in the case. The outline of the evidence that the prosecution presents during the opening statement is often referred to as its theory of the case.
The Defense Opening Statement
The lawyer for the accused, or the accused if representing him or herself, can choose to make an opening statement to the jury after the prosecutor’s opening statement. The opening statement for the defense will generally provide the jury with an outline of the evidence that the defense plans to present during the trial to establish that the accused is not guilty of the charges. The defense opening statement is often used to give the jury a preview of how the accused intends to rebut or challenge the prosecutor’s evidence.
The Prosecutor’s Case
In its “case in chief” or initial presentation of evidence to the jury, the prosecutor may call fact witnesses, eyewitnesses and expert witnesses. The prosecution may also present different forms of physical evidence including photographs, videos, business records and medical records. The attorney for the accused is permitted to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses to challenge the credibility and accuracy of their testimony. The attorney for the accused may also challenge the authenticity, reliability or relevancy of the prosecutor’s physical evidence.
The Defense Case
The attorney for the accused begins presenting a defense to the charges after the prosecution has completed its initial presentation of evidence to the jury. The attorney for the accused may call fact witnesses, expert witnesses, eyewitnesses, alibi witnesses and character witnesses to establish the innocence of the accused. Common defenses presented in a criminal trial include self-defense, defense of others, defense of property or alibi defense. Less common defenses in a criminal trial include duress, entrapment, renunciation, abandonment or withdrawal.
The accused may choose to testify in his or her own defense during the trial. Under Pennsylvania law, the jury is not permitted to assume that the accused is guilty of a crime if he or she declines to testify in his or her own defense during the trial. In limited circumstances, the prosecutor may be allowed to reopen its case to present additional evidence to rebut evidence presented by the accused during the trial.
The closing argument phase of the trial gives the prosecutor and the attorney for the accused the opportunity to summarize the evidence for their side of the case in an attempt to convince the jury to reach a verdict in their favor. Because the prosecutor carries the burden of proof in a criminal trial, the defense is first to present closing argument to the jury. The attorney for the accused will attempt to persuade the jury that the prosecutor has not met its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the crimes charged in the case.
The prosecutor presents a closing argument to the jury at the conclusion of the closing argument presented by the attorney for the accused. The prosecutor will attempt to persuade the jury to render a guilty verdict by asserting that the evidence proves the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.
The trial judge will provide the jury with the legal standards it will apply to the evidence in the case. The jury instructions will include an explanation of the elements each criminal charge facing the accused and the definition of reasonable doubt. The trial judge will instruct the jury that they must find that the prosecutor has established the guilt of the accused as to each element of each offense beyond a reasonable doubt in order to reach a verdict of guilt.
The jurors will choose a jury foreperson before the deliberations begin. The length of jury deliberations can vary based on the type of criminal case being heard and the ability of the jurors to reach a consensus in determining whether the accused is guilty or not guilty of the crimes charged. Jury deliberations can last hours or even weeks before a verdict is announced.
Pennsylvania requires that the verdict in a criminal case be unanimous. In most criminal cases, the jury is able to reach a unanimous verdict for each charge. In those cases, the jury foreperson will read the verdict aloud in the courtroom. In some cases, the jurors may be unable to reach a unanimous verdict as to all the charges facing the accused. Under these circumstances, the trial judge, in consultation with the defense counsel and the prosecutor, may declare a mistrial. In most cases, the accused may be re-tried for the same charges if the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict and a mistrial is declared by the trial judge.
The trial judge may accept a partial verdict from the jury after consultation with the attorney for the accused and prosecutor. A criminal trial may end in a partial verdict if the jurors are able to reach a unanimous verdict on some, but not all of the charges in the case. The accused, with some exceptions, is subject to re-trial for any charges on which the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. In a waiver or bench trial, the judge will announce the verdict at the conclusion of the trial or at a later date determined by the court.
Post-verdict motions may include a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal. A Motion for Judgment of Acquittal is filed when the attorney for the accused believes that the prosecutor did not present sufficient evidence at trial to support a verdict of guilt. The trial judge may vacate the jury’s verdict of guilt if the Motion for Judgment of Acquittal is granted. The trial court may grant a Motion for New Trial based on newly discovered evidence if the existence of that evidence may have produced a different trial verdict. A post-verdict motion may also be filed to correct a legal error or to remedy an injustice that may have occurred during the trial.
In Pennsylvania, an individual convicted of a crime is usually sentenced within 90 days of being found guilty of a criminal offense by a judge or jury. An individual entering a guilty plea or no-contest plea to a crime is also required to be sentenced within 90 days of the date of the entry of the plea. Before sentencing takes place, the judge will consider a number of factors including the protection of the community, the offender’s background and the offender’s potential for rehabilitation. In some cases, the judge may order a pre-sentence investigation by the probation department to provide a more detailed summary of the offender’s background.
How Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines are Used
In most cases, the judge will impose a sentence within the Pennsylvania state sentencing guidelines. The sentencing guidelines provide the judge with a suggested range for the sentence based on the severity of the offense and the offender’s prior criminal history. The defense attorney will often present mitigating evidence to the sentencing judge including character witness testimony, proof of pre-sentence counseling or substance abuse treatment and other evidence demonstrating the rehabilitation of the offender. The sentencing judge may impose a sentence in the lower range of the sentencing guidelines if the offender has demonstrated remorse and taken significant steps towards rehabilitating his or her life.
Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence
A Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence must be filed with 10 days of the imposition of the sentence in a criminal case. A Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence may be filed when newly discovered mitigating evidence is uncovered after the offender’s sentencing has taken place. The newly discovered mitigating evidence must be of such a nature that it would have had an impact on the judge’s sentencing had it been known. A Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence may also be filed to correct an illegal sentence imposed by the sentencing judge.
The appellant may raise a number of issues on appeal after being convicted of a crime. Certain appellate issues related to sentencing and the weight of the evidence for the verdict must be initially raised by the appellant in a post-trial motion in the trial court in order to be properly preserved for appellate review. Post-conviction appellate issues may include a review of the trial court’s denial of the suppression of physical evidence or a statement by the accused.
An appellant may challenge the trial court’s actions in either allowing or prohibiting the introduction of certain evidence during the trial. An appellant may also request a review of issues related to excessive sentencing, prosecutorial misconduct, illegal sentencing and whether the evidence presented at trial was legally sufficient to support a conviction on the charges. I have extensive experience with the Pennsylvania post-conviction appellate process and procedures. I can review the circumstances of your conviction to determine the appropriate legal issues to raise on appeal.
Should I Represent Myself?
An individual charged with a crime has a constitutional right to represent him or herself in a criminal case. Most unrepresented individuals are at a severe disadvantage in the criminal court system due to their unfamiliarity with the rules or evidence and complex court procedures. It is often difficult for unrepresented individuals to achieve a successful outcome in cases involving even minor offenses. It is important to speak to an knowledgeable criminal defense attorney before deciding to represent yourself in a criminal case.
Why it is Important to Build Your Defense at the Earliest Stage
It is important to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer at the earliest possible stage in the process, whether that is while you are under investigation or after formal charges have been filed. In some cases, I can conduct a pre-arrest investigation to develop evidence to convince the police or prosecutor to decline prosecution of the case.
Trusted and Dedicated Criminal Defense
I have extensive experience aggressively defending individuals charged with a wide range of criminal offenses. My experience includes representation during the grand jury investigation, pre-arrest investigation, preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, trial, sentencing and appeal. My law practice focuses exclusively on representing individuals charged with criminal offenses. I can guide you through what is often an overwhelming process and develop the most effective defense strategy to resolve your case. I will keep you fully informed of the developments in your case and answer any questions you may have throughout the process.
Start with a Strong Defense
If you have been charged with a crime in Bucks County, Montgomery County or the surrounding counties, it is critical that you act quickly to protect your rights and build the strongest possible defense against the charges. Phone lines are open 24 hours a day at (215) 752-5282. Contact me for a free initial consultation or fill out the confidential contact form for an immediate response.