Blog

What happens at a Philadelphia Municipal Court Criminal Trial?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jun 22, 2017 | 0 Comments

All criminal cases in Philadelphia when prosecuted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, most often through the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, will start in the Criminal Division of Philadelphia Municipal Court.  Understanding how Philadelphia Municipal Court works is critical to achieving a favorable outcome when defending against criminal charges as brought by the State of Pennsylvania in the City of Philadelphia.

Will a judge or jury decide whether I am guilty or not guilty at a Philadelphia Municipal Court trial?

In Philadelphia Municipal Court, a defendant has a right to trial before a judge and not a jury.  If the defendant is convicted in Municipal Court and files an appeal for a de novo trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas – Criminal Division, the defendant will have an absolute right to a jury trial in Common Pleas Court.  Therefore, a defendant's absolute jury trial right is delayed, but not denied.

If a defendant is convicted after a Philadelphia Municipal Court trial, the defendant has an absolute right to appeal within 30 days and have a new second trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas - Criminal Division on those charges which the defendant was convicted on in Municipal Court.  This new second trial is know as a trial de novo (from Latin, meaning “from the new" - when a court hears a case de novo, it is deciding the issues without reference to the legal conclusions or assumptions made by the previous court to hear the case).

What are the rules of Philadelphia Municipal Court?

Philadelphia Municipal Court is governed by a set of Pennsylvania (state) criminal procedural rules; specifically, the “1000” et. seq. series of rules of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure.  The most important of these rules are Rule 1005 (pre-trial motions can be made orally in Municipal Court), Rule 1011 (the right to a de novo appeal, the effect of the de novo appeal regarding vacating a sentence, and bail remaining the same pending the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas de novo trial), and Rule 1013 (the 180 day prompt trial rule). 

All of the other Pennsylvania state criminal procedural and evidentiary rules that are not inconsistent with the 1000 series of Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure also apply to Philadelphia Municipal Court.  Philadelphia “local” Rules of Municipal Court also apply.

What is an “oral” pre-trial motion in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

In Philadelphia Municipal Court, all pre-trial motions including the most frequently made pre-trial motions (such as “suppression” motions and Rule 103 speedy trial motions) are, per Rule 1005, made orally prior to trial arraignment.

If a pre-trial motion is not made prior to the Philadelphia Municipal Court trial, such motion may be deemed waived in the event of an appeal for a de novo trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas absent a showing in Common Pleas Court of after-discovered evidence or ineffective assistance of counsel in Municipal Court.

It should be noted that there is no dedicated Motions Court in Philadelphia Municipal Court.  However, certain pre-trial motions in Municipal Court case such as formal bail motions or habeas corpus motions can also be filed in writing and heard in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Criminal Motion Court (courtroom 805 of the Criminal Justice Center, also known as the “CJC”).

How does a defendant get “discovery” for their case in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

A defendant's attorney providing effective representation in Philadelphia Municipal Court must have and must review discovery prior to the Municipal Court trial.  Discovery is necessary to determine whether the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office (known as the “Commonwealth” in court proceedings) has a legally sufficient criminal case, whether there is a viable pre-trial suppression motion, and whether or not the criminal defense attorney should advise his or her client to plead not guilty and have a trial or to seek a non-trial disposition.

What should be included in a defendant's discovery in Philadelphia Municipal Court? 

Discovery should contain prior statement contain prior statements of Commonwealth witnesses and police officers, which can be used to “impeach” such witnesses at trial in the event that such witnesses give different testimony at trial.  Discovery in Philadelphia Municipal Court is provided in the pre-trial conference room (courtroom 404 of the Criminal Justice Center) or electronically by “E-Discovery” prior to trial. 

If the defendant's attorney would like to receive discovery prior to the pre-trial conference, the attorney should make a written request to the Chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Pre-Trial Division.  If the defendant's attorney would like discovery after the pre-trial conference, then the attorney should contact the appropriate “zone” or unit chief in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.  The defendant's attorney can also make an oral motion for additional or missing discovery to the judge at the first listing of the case in Philadelphia Municipal Court (or thereafter if appropriate).

What is a “non-trial disposition” in Philadelphia Municipal Court?  What is a “stipulated trial?”

If the defendant does not want to have a trial and after review of discovery, the defense attorney believes there are no meritorious pre-trial motions and that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has a legally sufficient case to prove the defendant guilty, then the defense attorney may advise his or her client to have a “non-trial disposition” in lieu of trial. 

In Philadelphia Municipal Court, non-trial dispositions are usually conducted by a “stipulated trial.”  There are several kinds of stipulated trials in Municipal Court.  The defense attorney should always “on the record” advise the judge presiding over the case as to what kind of stipulated trial has been agreed to by the defense attorney and the District Attorney and the terms of the agreement before the defendant enters a plea at the trial arraignment.

Can a stipulated trial be “fully negotiated” as to the criminal charge, grade of offense, and sentence in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

A stipulated trial can be fully negotiated between the defendant's attorney and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.  In this kind of trial, the District Attorney and the criminal defense attorney agree prior to trial arraignment as to the criminal charge(s)/grade of offense(s) that the defendant will be found guilty of and the sentence that will be imposed. 

The defendant pleads “not guilty” to the “stipulated” set of facts (usually the Philadelphia Police reports) and if the judge finds that the police report contains sufficient facts to sustain the guilty verdict on the criminal charge(s), the judge enters the agreed upon verdict and sentence. 

If the judge is unable to or refuses to impose the negotiated sentence then the defendant has the right to withdraw his or her stipulated trial and to have the case listed for trial at another time before another judge.

Can a stipulated trial be “partially negotiated” as to the criminal charge, grade of offense, and sentence in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

A stipulated trial can be partially negotiated between the defendant's attorney and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.  In this kind of trial, the District Attorney and the criminal defense attorney agree to the criminal charge(s)/grade(s) of offense that the defendant will be found guilty.  There is no agreement as to what sentence the judge will impose however.

The defendant pleads not guilty to a stipulated set of facts (as above, usually the Philadelphia Police reports) and if the judge finds that the police report contains sufficient facts as to sustain the guilty verdict on the criminal charge(s), enters the agreed upon guilty verdict.  The judge then hears arguments from the defendant's attorney and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office as to what sentence to impose.

What is a “fully open” stipulated trial in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

In this kind of stipulated trial, there is no agreement as to whether the defendant will be found guilty of any criminal charge(s)/grade of offense(s), and if the defendant is found guilty, there is no agreement as to what sentence Philadelphia Municipal Court will impose.

The only agreement is to a set of stipulated facts (as above, usually the Philadelphia Police Reports) and additional facts that the defense attorney offers such as good character evidence, medical records, and/or defense witness statements that the judge hears before deciding the verdict in the criminal case.

If the judge finds the defendant guilty of any offense, the judge hears argument from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and the defense attorney as to what sentence to impose.  The fully open stipulated trial is infrequently done in Philadelphia Municipal Court.

How do guilty pleas work in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

With increasing frequency, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has been requesting guilty pleas and not stipulated trials in Philadelphia Municipal Court, particularly in DUI cases. If the DA requests a guilty plea, an effective Philadelphia criminal defense attorney must always seek a "fully negotiated guilty plea" where the charge(s), grade of offense(s), and sentence are agreed upon by and between the defense attorney and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office as consideration for the guilty plea.

If the judge presiding over the case does not accept the terms of the negotiated guilty plea, then the defense attorney should be permitted to have the defendant withdraw his or her guilty plea and have the case relisted before a different Philadelphia Municipal Court judge.  A related consideration is that an effective Philadelphia criminal defense attorney should never offer an "open" guilty plea where there is no agreement on what sentence the Municipal Court judge will impose.  The reason being that an open guilty plea runs the risk that a heavy or unfair sentence can be imposed without the defendant having a meaningful appeal right.  This is because a voluntary/intelligent guilty plea cuts off most of a defendant's appeal rights (to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for a de novo trial).

How is "prior recorded testimony" and "potential for impeachment" handled in Philadelphia Municipal Court? 

Philadelphia Municipal Court is a court of "record" and a First Judicial District of Pennsylvania court stenographer transcribes all Philadelphia Municipal Court trials and preliminary hearings.  Therefore, if a defendant testifies in his or her defense at a Municipal Court trial, the defendant can be "impeached" by his or her prior inconsistent Municipal Court testimony if he or she testifies differently at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas trial in the event of a de novo appeal of the defendant's conviction. 

By the same measure, a Commonwealth witness or police officer who testifies at a Philadelphia Municipal Court trial can be impeached by his or her prior inconsistent Municipal Court testimony if he or she testifies differently in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in the event of a de novo appeal of the defendant's Municipal Court conviction.

The possibility of impeachment by prior inconsistent statement or omission is also applicable if a defendant or Commonwealth witness testifies at a pre-trial motion (usually a suppression motion) in Philadelphia Municipal Court and, due to judicial recusal, a different Municipal Court judge hears the Municipal Court trial and the witness testifies differently at trial than he or she did at the Municipal Court pre-trial motion.

In addition, a non-testifying defendant in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on a Municipal Court de novo appeal cannot be impeached by his or her Municipal Court trial or pre-trial testimony.  To do so would be a violation of the defendant's right against self-incrimination in the Common Pleas Court.

Criminal Defense Attorney for Philadelphia Municipal Court | Philadelphia Municipal Court Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges in Philadelphia Municipal Court, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has nearly a decade of experience fighting for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, as well as New Jersey. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being.

Comments

There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment

Contact Us Today!

Footer 2

Attorney Joseph D. Lento has nearly a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

This website was created only for general information purposes. It is not intended to be construed as legal advice for any situation. Only a direct consultation with a licensed Pennsylvania and New Jersey attorney can provide you with formal legal counsel based on the unique details surrounding your situation. The pages on this website may contain links and contact information for third party organizations – the Lento Law Firm does not necessarily endorse these organizations nor the materials contained on their website. The decision to hire an attorney in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, or New Jersey should not be made solely on the strength of an advertisement. We invite you to contact the Lento Law Firm directly to inquire about our specific qualifications and experience. Communicating with the Lento Law Firm by email, phone, or fax does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Lento Law Firm will serve as your official legal counsel upon a formal agreement from both parties. Any information sent to the Lento Law Firm before an attorney-client relationship is made is done on a non-confidential basis.

Menu