When a person commits a crime in Berks County, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas will hold jurisdiction over the defendant, and the defendant will ultimately be prosecuted by Berks County District Attorney's Office in most instances. The Berks County Court, located in Reading, PA, manages all criminal matters within its criminal division. This can include everything from an arrest, or probation negotiation, all the way up to criminal trials. Berks County provides a few services, such as access online to the repayment of fines; however, the court is primarily concerned with addressing and disposing of criminal cases.
Criminal Defense in Berks County
If you have been charged with a crime in Berks County, the dedication and availability of a dedicated attorney can greatly improve the strength of your case. Attorney Joseph D. Lento practices in Berks County and throughout Southern Pennsylvania. He passionately defends clients in Berks County, and some of the many kinds of cases he has resolved include, but are not limited to:
- DUI: DUI charges are often the result of a night out gone wrong. Enlisting the help of an experienced attorney can greatly improve your chances in court.
- Traffic Offenses: While many may consider traffic offenses to be simple, non-serious matters, the truth is that they can carry several unforeseen consequences. An attorney can help mitigate these potential effects.
- Drug Crimes: Drug crimes are often much more complex than they seem. Prosecutors will try to slam defendants with delivery or possession charges; however, a defense attorney can make strategic use of rules of evidence and improve a person's chances in court.
- Domestic Violence: When a person faces domestic violence charges, it is often the result of officers placing them under arrest without fully understanding the situation. A skilled defense attorney can make sure all sides of a story are heard in court.
- Protection from Abuse Orders: Pennsylvania law allows Berks County courts to issue restraining orders to protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. But these orders may have life-long repercussions to you, your career, and your family. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney by your side during this process.
- Sex Crimes: Charges for sex crimes carry very serious penalties and can result in a conviction that can affect a defendant for the rest of their life. A defense attorney can greatly help avoid potential extreme consequences.
- Violent Crimes: Violent crimes involve acts that endanger or inflict harm on a person and may have increased sentencing if any weapons are involved. These crimes are taken very seriously by the court, and having an experienced attorney on your side can greatly improve your case.
- Property Crimes: A crime involving property can include a high-level theft or a simple trespassing. In either case, an attorney will know the best way to approach this kind of criminal case.
- White Collar Crimes: Crimes involving financial fraud, theft, or embezzlement are often referred to by the blanket term of “white collar crime.” These cases are often highly complex and may require a more practiced approach.
- Juvenile Offenses: Committing a juvenile crime in Berks County can have profound consequences for the young person and his or her family. An attorney experienced with Berks County Juvenile Court can help during a difficult time in a family's life.
- Expungement/Sealing Records: Berks County and Pennsylvania will hold arrest and criminal records for years after a criminal case has concluded. After a certain amount of time has passed, these records may be able to be sealed or expunged, and an attorney can help make this process go smoothly.
The Court Process in Berks County
When you're facing criminal charges in Berks County, you need the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney can advise you on what to expect, help prepare your defense, and ensure your rights are protected in the courtroom and throughout the criminal justice process. Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said that “a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” We laugh, but in a criminal trial, this is true. Without extensive legal training, representing yourself against criminal charges isn'tsomething you should try to handle on your own. Moreover, accepting a guilty plea can impact your future for years.
Arrests and criminal trials rarely look like they do on TV. In many cases, the police won'tarrest you and throw you in the slammer until a judge decides bail. The police may arrest you and only hold you to ensure they know who you are and your criminal history. If you're facing a minor criminal charge, you have a squeaky-clean background, or if you have a lawyer, the police may release you and tell you to reappear later to have your fingerprints taken. You may also receive a summons from the court in the mail telling you when you must appear for a preliminary hearing or a summary trial.
For felony matters or more serious misdemeanors, you should have a preliminary arraignment within 72 hours after the police arrest you. At the preliminary arraignment, usually before a magistrate, the court will notify you of your rights, including your right to have an attorney. You'll also receive a copy of the charges against you. If at all possible, you should hire an attorney to represent you before your preliminary arraignment.
- Preliminary or Summary Trial in Berks County
Within ten days after your preliminary arraignment, you should have a preliminary hearing. This hearing may be “preliminary,” but it is still the first big step in your criminal trial. You will need an attorney for this hearing before the magistrate in district court. At the preliminary hearing, the district attorney or prosecution must make a “prima facie”case on behalf of the state. A “prima facie case” means it's more likely than not that a crime was committed and that you committed the crime. The prosecutor doesn't have to meet the standard of proving this “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and the rules of evidence will be looser. The judge may also allow hearsay evidence in the preliminary hearing. If the Commonwealth makes a prima facie case, the judge will hold you over for court.
After this hearing, the district attorney's office files the “information,” a formal document outlining the charges against you. The court will then schedule a formal arraignment four weeks after the preliminary hearing.
- Formal Arraignment in the Court of Common Pleas
Your formal arraignment will typically happen in the Court of Common Pleas, and the court will again inform you of your rights and the charges against you. You should receive a copy of the charges or the “information.” After the formal arraignment, your attorney can file pretrial pleadings, including discovery motions, motions for continuance or suppression, or other matters on your behalf. The prosecution will typically answer discovery motions if made within 30 days of the formal arraignment.
- The Pretrial Conference
During the pretrial conference, both parties will meet with the court to finalize any outstanding motions, see where the parties are with discovery, determine whether the parties can resolve the case through a plea and whether the case is ready for trial.
Your plea options can include:
- A not guilty plea,
- A plea negotiated with the prosecutor or a “plea bargain.”
- An open plea where you plead guilty without a negotiated or recommended sentence from the prosecutor, or
- A “no contest” or nolo contendere plea where you make no representation of your guilt or innocence.
- Bench or Jury Trial in Berks County
In a criminal trial, you have a right to a trial by jury. However, you can also choose a bench trial, allowing the judge to act as the “finder of fact” in place of a jury. The prosecutor will represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and your attorney will make arguments on your behalf in either a bench or jury trial. The judge oversees the trial and ensures the parties follow the court's rules and the rules of evidence.
If you elect to have a jury trial, the court will randomly assign twelve jurors from voter registration, tax, and driver's license records. Your attorney and the prosecutor will then go through the voir dire process, and the court may excuse some jurors from the pool and add replacements until the parties select 12 impartial jurors. The jury's role in the trial is to hear the evidence and arguments from both sides and make factual determinations about your guilt or innocence.
A Berks County trial typically follows the same process, proceeding through:
- Opening arguments from both parties summarizing what the jurors will hear
- The Commonwealth's case presented by the prosecutor through the introduction of witnesses and evidence
- Your defense presented by your attorney through the introduction of evidence and witnesses
- Both parties will have the chance to cross-examine each witness from the other side, challenge evidence, and rebut arguments
- Closing arguments where each party summarizes their case or defense
After closing arguments, the jury will deliberate privately and come to a verdict. To find you guilty, the jurors must unanimously find that you committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the jury can't agree on this, the court may declare a mistrial, seat a new jury, and hold another trial.
If the court or the jury acquits you of the charges, the state can't try you for the same offense again. The U.S. Constitution protects you from double jeopardy, meaning the state doesn't get a second bite at the apple. Moreover, the state doesn't have the right to appeal an acquittal. If the court or the jury finds you guilty, the judge will set a future sentencing date.
- Sentencing in Berks County
When sentencing you, the judge will consider the presentencing investigation report as well as:
- The seriousness of your crime and any aggravating factors
- How you harmed the victim and their family
- Any mitigating circumstances
- Your criminal history
Berks County Criminal Defense Attorney | Criminal Defense Lawyer in Reading
Joseph Lento passionately defends clients in Reading and Berks County. He takes clients' concerns personally, and he is not satisfied his clients are satisfied. If you or a loved one is currently facing criminal charges in the above categories or beyond in Reading or Lancaster County, PA, contact defense attorney Joseph D. Lento today.