Criminal Court Procedure in Pennsylvania
What to expect
1. Preliminary Hearing:
The first hearing is an evidentiary hearing before the local District Justice where the crime was alleged to have been committed.
It is a very important stage in the process and should not be attended without an attorney.
At this hearing, the prosecution must demonstrate to the District Justice that there is enough evidence to bind the charges over to the Court of Common Pleas. The District Justice does not determine guilt or innocence, nor does he or she impose the punishment for the offense; the judge simply determines if there is enough evidence in the case.
This hearing usually occurs within 30 to 45 days after the charges are filed and can usually be postponed to allow for investigation and/or extra time for our payment plan.
Approximately 30 to 60 days after your preliminary hearing is the formal arraignment which occurs in the Court of Common Pleas.
This hearing is a procedural hearing in which “not guilty” pleas are entered and you are served with the formal charges against you as well as your trial date.
In Bucks and Montgomery Counties
Your attorney can “waive” your appearance at this hearing which excuses you from attending this formality.
In Lehigh and Philadelphia Counties
You must appear at this hearing with your attorney to formally enter your “not guilty” plea. After the arraignment, we are permitted to file Motions for Discovery in which the District Attorney must provide to us all of the police reports, witness statements and other evidence in your case.
At this point, you are permitted to file a Motion to Suppress in which the prosecution must prove the police acted constitutionally. If the Judge decides after a hearing that the police acted improperly, then all of the evidence in your case is suppressed (thrown out) and the charges against you are dropped.
3. Pre-trial Conference:
In Montgomery and Lehigh counties:
A pretrial conference is the 3rd hearing scheduled, usually within 45 – 60 days after the formal Arraignment.
Also known as a status hearing, the judge “conferences” the case with the Defense Attorney and the Prosecutor in an attempt to resolve any outstanding issues. If a plea bargain is offered, it usually occurs at this hearing.
In Bucks County, the trial date occurs approximately 30 days after the formal Arraignment.
In Montgomery and Lehigh counties, it occurs approximately 45 days after the Pre-Trial Conference, if necessary. On this hearing date, the case usually is resolved with a first-time offender’s program, if eligible, a guilty plea, or a trial by a judge or by a jury.
A majority of individuals are sentenced on this date, if found guilty. At sentencing, defendants are permitted to introduce evidence (character witnesses, AA sponsors, medical records) to assist the judge in deciding punishment.