“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
These famous words, first spoken by President Abraham Lincoln, have subsequently been memorized by schoolchildren not just here in Pennsylvania but across the entire United States for over 150 years. The Gettysburg Address, and the Civil War battle that preceded it by several months, are among history's most iconic events. Even today, the residents of Gettysburg, PA, and surrounding Adams County, Pennsylvania—home to the Gettysburg National Military Park as well as many other captivating historic sites—depend for their livelihood on the nearly one million tourists who visit the area each year.
This region, which borders Maryland to the South and is located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is heavily associated with the values held dear by Americans, for which so many soldiers fought and died in the Civil War. But that doesn't mean its people are today entirely upstanding. Like anywhere else in the country, Adams County experiences its share of crime. And when that happens, the first step for many of those criminals is one of the four magisterial courts located within its borders.
If you're looking for information on magisterial courts, you've come to the right place. The Lento Law Firm team has gathered together some of the most commonly asked questions about this component of the Pennsylvania State justice system and their answers. However, if you have a question that you don't see answered here, please contact us using this convenient form or our online chat option, or give us a call at 1-888-535-3686.
Adams County Magisterial District Court
First, a little background. Dating all the way back to the 1600s, when the first part-time local courts were established, Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial system is one of the country's oldest court systems. Back then, there was no such thing as a state Supreme Court like there is today. Despite a number of attempts to organize the judicial system of what was then the Province of Pennsylvania (aka Pennsylvania Colony), final appeals had to be taken across the ocean and back to England to be decided!
Today, the court system in the Keystone state is thorough, well-organized, and fully automated. A wealth of information can be found on its website.
Now, on to the Adams County Magisterial District Courts.
What Is a Magisterial Court?
The Pennsylvania court system is organized like a pyramid. At the top is the Supreme Court (which is celebrating its 300th birthday in 2022!). The next level contains the Superior Court and Commonwealth Court; underneath those, the Courts of Common Pleas. At the very bottom are the Minor Courts.
You can think of the Minor Courts as the entry-level state judicial system. In addition to the municipal court systems of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, this lowest level of the pyramid also contains the courts of 511 magisterial districts.
How Many Magisterial Courts Are There in Adams County?
There are four Magisterial Districts in Adams County. For more information on them and the judges that preside over them, see the Adams County website.
What Happens in These Courts?
You've probably heard of small claims court. That's one of the things that happens in Magisterial District Courts. When someone brings a civil lawsuit seeking damages under $12,000, the suit can be decided in these courts. Anything above that amount must be decided in the Court of Common Pleas.
Another matter handled in Magisterial District Courts are summary offenses, aka non-traffic citations, which include such matters as:
- Disorderly conduct
- Underaged drinking
- First-offense shoplifting
- Criminal mischief
- Municipal ordinance violations
District Courts also handle traffic offenses, landlord/tenant issues, and preliminary arraignments and hearings in criminal matters. This last category deserves a bit more explanation, so we're including a separate discussion of it below.
Who Presides Over the Magisterial Courts?
Each court has its own presiding judge. All the judges in the PA Judicial System are elected officials. Fun fact: the Magisterial District judges are the only ones in the system that do not need to be admitted to the PA Bar Association. They do, however, have to meet other minimum criteria.
What Kinds of Criminal Proceedings Take Place in Magisterial Court?
When someone has been arrested on suspicion of a crime in Pennsylvania, they will appear before a Magisterial District judge for a preliminary arraignment. This must happen within 72 hours of the arrest. During the arraignment, the judge will read the charges against them, inform them of their right to an attorney, set a date for a preliminary hearing, and set the defendant's bail.
At the preliminary hearing, which happens between three and ten days after the preliminary arraignment, the judge will decide whether there's enough evidence for the prosecutor to link the defendant to the crime of which they stand accused. This is also the defendant's first opportunity to discuss a plea deal with the district attorney.
I Just Got a Summons for Adams County Magisterial Court. Help!
First, take a couple of deep breaths. This experience is scary, but when you have legal counsel by your side, you don't need to panic.
So that's your first step: call an experienced attorney. Also, put the date and time of your appearance in your calendar and make certain that you get there. It's a good idea to be a few minutes early, as well as to dress and to behave in a manner befitting the court.
If you do not appear in court at the time you are summoned, a warrant for your arrest can be issued. That will only compound your problem. In the event that you have an absolutely unavoidable conflict with the day and time of your appearance in District Court, tell your attorney about it right away.
Do I Need an Attorney for a Preliminary Hearing?
This is a tricky question. The answer is no… but also yes. Let us explain.
In Pennsylvania, as in the U.S. in general, people have the right to defend themselves in a court of law without an attorney. This is known as pro se, from the Latin meaning “for oneself.” This right is one that's foundational in our judicial system and an important part of what it means to be an American.
However, it's definitely not recommended that Pennsylvanians do this, particularly those who are facing criminal charges. That's because unless that individual has a strong background in law, the chances of them being able to fully understand all the complexities involved in mounting a successful defense are pretty slim.
Not only do criminal defense attorneys go to school for years, then pass the tricky bar exam in order to become a lawyer, but they also have experience working with District Attorneys' offices, judges, and everyone else involved in the process. They have handled plenty of cases, gaining incredibly valuable and hard-won experience through their career. And they have a wealth of resources to call on that non-attorneys do not even know about, let alone have access to.
Do yourself a favor; let a qualified, experienced, and compassionate criminal defense attorney help.
This Is a “Minor Court,” Right? How Big of a Deal Can It Be?
Even though the Magisterial District Courts of Adams County are known as a part of the “minor court system,” that doesn't mean that the proceedings that take place there are inconsequential. On the contrary, a conviction of even comparatively small charges like summary offenses will go on your permanent criminal record. You may be facing much higher fines than what you might expect, and you could even be sentenced to jail time.
What's more, a conviction on your record can affect your ability to rent an apartment or home, get approved for a mortgage or car loan, or even find employment in certain jobs or industries. While you may be able to get your conviction expunged down the line, that's a hassle, and it's always better to avoid marring your record to begin with.
So…Hiring an Attorney Can Really Help?
You bet it can! You'll only get one shot at defending yourself in the Adams County Magisterial District Court system. Why not set yourself up for success? Joseph D. Lento and the team at the Lento Law Firm have years of experience helping clients in Adams County. They can handle any type of case and will work tirelessly to ensure that you understand what's happening, that you make the best possible decisions on your own behalf, and that you get a fair shake in the Magisterial Courts. Give us a call at 1-888-535-3686 to find out more about how we can help.