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Charged with a Crime and Facing Trial in Philadelphia Municipal Court? What You Need to Know

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Nov 19, 2017 | 0 Comments

Being arrested and charged with a crime in Philadelphia will, by its nature, be a challenging ordeal.  Having the right attorney in your corner will certainly make a difficult process easier to bear, but as importantly, understanding what to expect in a Philadelphia Municipal Court case will help make a challenging time more manageable.  The following article explains important aspects of how a Philadelphia criminal court case will generally start, and also explains major steps in the process through the trial stage.

Can a person be arrested without a warrant in Philadelphia?

Many people in Philadelphia can and will be arrested without a warrant.  This is the nature of crime, the nature of how allegations against a person are made, and the nature of police work, and is allowed under the law in Pennsylvania.  Although Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003 requires that criminal proceedings in court cases in Philadelphia (and throughout Pennsylvania) "shall" be instituted by filing a written complaint, there are several exceptions. 

For example, if a Philadelphia police officer stops a person for suspected drunk driving, a lawful arrest without a warrant can be made by the police officer because the suspected criminal offense (driving under the influence) was committed in the presence of the police officer.  This example would fall under the following exception of Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003:

  • Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003(A)(1)(a): an arrest without a warrant [may be made] when a felony or misdemeanor is committed in the presence of the police officer making the arrest

Even if a misdemeanor offense is not committed in the presence of a Philadelphia police officer, it may fall under the following exception to Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003:

  • Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003(A)(1)(b): an arrest without a warrant [may be made] upon probable cause when the offense is a misdemeanor not committed in the presence of the police officer making the arrest, when the arrest without a warrant is specifically authorized by law

Lastly, if a person accuses another of assaulting them where the assault would be considered "aggravated assault", a felony, the arrest of the person accused could be made without a warrant under the following exception to Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003:

  • Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003(A)(1)(c): an arrest [may be made] without a warrant upon probable cause when the offense is a felony

With the above examples in mind, ff a police officer pulls over a suspected drunk driver in Philadelphia and arrests him or her, or if a police officer responds to a radio call where a person alleges that they were just violently assaulted, the police officer can lawfully arrest the person suspected or accused in such an instance.  If, however, a person is arrested without a warrant under Pa.R.Crim.P. 1003(A)(1)(a) or (b), the person may not be detained, or held in custody, unless the bail commissioner makes a determination of "probable cause"; meaning there are reasonable grounds for the arrest and the criminal charge(s).

If the defendant was arrested with a warrant, the bail commissioner must give the defendant copies of the warrant and affidavits at the Philadelphia preliminary arraignment.  If they are not available at that time, copies must be provided to the person charged no later than the first business day after the preliminary arraignment.

What happens after a person is arrested in Philadelphia?

When a person is arrested in Philadelphia for a misdemeanor or felony offense (or offenses, as is usually the case), and whether that arrest is made with or without a warrant, the person is required under Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure to be taken without "unnecessary delay" before the proper authority for a preliminary arraignment.  The proper authority in Philadelphia will be a "bail commissioner"; although not a "judge", having powers of the court. 

As such, after a person is arrested, transported to the applicable Philadelphia Police District or Philadelphia Police Headquarters located at 8th and Race Streets, the person will be scheduled to have a preliminary arraignment.  The preliminary arraignment will generally take place anywhere from 12 to 16 to 24 hours after a person is arrested.  Preliminary arraignments take place 24 hours a day / 7 days a week and are scheduled  in blocks; for example, preliminary hearings will be heard at 12 AM, 4 AM, 8 AM, 12 PM, 4 PM, and 8 PM.

What happens at the preliminary arraignment in Philadelphia?

At the preliminary arraignment, the judge may not question the person charged concerning the criminal offense(s), but must:

  • read and explain the complaint to the defendant;
  • give a copy of the complaint to the defendant;
  • explain the right to counsel;
  • set bail, as provided for in the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure (specifically, Pa.R.Crim.P 1001 et seq.); and
  • fix a trial date for not less than 20 days after the preliminary arraignment.

If the person charged with a crime in Philadelphia wants to post bail, hire an attorney, or notify others, including family or friends, of his or her arrest, the person must be given the opportunity to do so. 

The Bail Process After a Philadelphia Preliminary Arraignment

How this requirement plays out in practice in Philadelphia is that after the person's preliminary arraignment takes place, he or she will generally be given one phone call regardless of whether the person is detained at any of  Philadelphia's 21 police districts or at Philadelphia Police Headquarters, known as the "Roundhouse," located at 750 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106 (8th and Race Streets).  If bail is posted in a timely fashion, generally an hour or two, the person charged will be released from the police district or Philadelphia Police Headquarters. 

If bail is not posted in a timely manner, the person charged will be transported to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, known as "CFCF",located at 7901 State Road, Philadelphia, PA 19136.  It can take 24 - 48 hours for a person charged with a crime to be processed in Philadelphia.  Even if bail is posted three hours after a person's preliminary arraignment (after the person was transported to CFCF in other words), the person will not be released from custody until the person is processed in full. That is why if bail is going to be posted so that the person charged can be released as soon as possible in Philadelphia, it must be posted immediately after the preliminary arraignment. 

If bail is not posted either immediately or shortly after the Philadelphia preliminary arraignment, the Philadelphia Court will accept bail at any time prior to the Philadelphia Municipal Court trial.

Will the person charged appear in person at the preliminary arraignment in Philadelphia?

In Philadelphia, the preliminary arraignment may be conducted via two-way audio / video communication.  If the person charged has a defense attorney at the time of the preliminary hearing, even though the defendant will be at the applicable police district or Philadelphia Police Headquarters and the attorney will be present at the Criminal Justice Center, located at 1301 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107, the person charged must be allowed to communicate fully and confidentially with his or her attorney immediately prior to and during the preliminary arraignment.

What happens after the preliminary arraignment in Philadelphia?

After the preliminary arraignment or, when a defendant appears pursuant to a summons in cases such as disorderly conduct or underage drinking, after the defendant's first appearance, proceedings in Philadelphia Court must be recorded.  (Cases that are instituted by summons in Philadelphia, generally involving summary offenses, will not generally involve a person's actual arrest.  The person receiving the summons will be provided with the court date and time at the time of the summons' issuance.)  In Philadelphia, a court stenographer employed by the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, the judicial body governing the county of Philadelphia, is responsible for manually recording and transcribing court proceedings.

Different from the preliminary arraignment, the person charged with a crime in Philadelphia will be "arraigned" immediately prior to the Philadelphia Municipal Court trial.  This is known as the "arraignment", in contrast to the person's "preliminary arraignment" which, as explained above, takes place immediately after the person's arrest.

Arraignment at the time of the Philadelphia Municipal Court Trial generally consists of the person charged being advised of the criminal charge(s) "on the record" (recorded by a court stenographer) and asked to enter a plea of "guilty" or "not guilty".

How are criminal motions handled in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

Pretrial applications for various forms of relief may be submitted in writing prior to the Philadelphia Municipal Court trial or may be made orally at the time of trial. The vast majority of applications and pretrial motions are made orally in Philadelphia Municipal Court (in contrast to the higher Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas where all applications and motions must be made in writing). 

Many pretrial motions in Philadelphia Municipal Court will involves arguments related to the suppression of evidence that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania intends to introduce against the person charged.  (The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the authority that is prosecuting the criminal case after the person charged.  The vast majority of cases in Philadelphia will be prosecuted by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office; some, however, will be prosecuted by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.)  Many drug and DUI cases will have potential suppression arguments.  For example, the drugs recovered during a car stop or the Breathalyzer results after a car stop may be able to be suppressed if the car stop itself was unconstitutional.  If the initial car stop does not pass muster, an experienced attorney will argue that the evidence (the drugs or the Breathalyzer results for example) should be not permitted to be used against the person charged.  The basis of this argument is that the drugs or Breathlyzer results are the "fruit of the poisonous tree", which means that any evidence obtained after an unconstitutional act, in this instance, the illegal car stop, is admissible evidence and should be suppressed.)  If a pre-trial applicable such as a suppression motion is litigated and lost in Philadelphia Municipal Court, meaning the judge ruled in favor of the Commonwealth, unless new evidence not available at the time of the Municipal Court hearing is discovered, a "suppression" issue may not be re-litigated at any subsequent trial in Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas.  The person charged and his or her attorney only get one bite at the apple in other words.

When are criminal motions heard in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

Pretrial applications and motions are generally heard by the judge immediately prior to trial.  These applications and motions generally involve issues related to a person's right to speedy trial, right not to be placed in double jeopardy, right to request a continuance of the proceedings (for defense investigation, for necessary witnesses to appear, etc.), and as noted above, suppression of evidence.  These are pretrial applications and motions that are not unique to Philadelphia Municipal Court because they can also be litigated in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, but despite a few exceptions, such requests will generally be made orally in Philadelphia Municipal Court whereas such requests will have to be made in writing in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

If the Commonwealth makes a pretrial application or motion and it is denied (the prosecution loses in other words), the Philadelphia Municipal Court judge must grant the Commonwealth a continuance to take an appeal to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas if such a request is made.

Philadelphia Municipal Court Trial Issues

A Philadelphia Municipal Court criminal trial must be tried as if it were a non-jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas.  This means that the same rules of evidence and court procedures, including the sequestration of witnesses (to have potential witnesses excluded from the courtroom so as to avoid having a witness color his or her testimony by hearing the testimony of other witnesses) and the prospective recusal of the trial judge as necessary, applies to Municipal Court trials as with the Court of Common Pleas.

Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibit the use of two-way simultaneous audio-visual communication at preliminary hearing, trial, sentencing, probation and parole revocation hearings, or any criminal proceeding in which a defendant has a constitutional or statutory right to be physically present, unless the person charged (or convicted when applicable) consents or otherwise waives the right to be present.

Can bail be changed in Philadelphia Municipal Court?

Prior to the verdict being handed down in Philadelphia Municipal Court, an existing bail order may be modified by the Municipal Court judge in the same manner that a judge in the Court of Common Pleas may modify a bail order.  This principle is controlled by Pa.R.Crim.P. 529(B), (C), and (D)

Bail can be requested to be lowered or raised by both the defense and the Commonwealth.  For example, the defendant's attorney can ask the judge to reduce bail if the defendant is in custody, just as the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office can ask the judge to raise bail.  One example of why the Commonwealth may ask that bail be raised could include allegations of witness intimidation by the defendant or third parties associated with the defendant.

Attorney for Philadelphia Municipal Court Case | Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Getting an arrested and charged with a crime in Philadelphia can fundamentally change a person's life.  In addition to the potential loss of one's freedom, the prospect of a criminal conviction and record can destroy everything that a person has worked towards in life.  The stakes are potentially that much higher for anyone who has to be concerned about their employment, a professional license, and for Philadelphia college students for example, their education. 

Attorney Joseph D. Lento not only has passionately defended clients in countless Philadelphia Municipal Court trials over the past decade, he worked for the Philadelphia court system while he pursued his law degree at night.  He knows how to navigate Philadelphia Municipal Court and he knows how to get his clients results so that they can put any mistakes or indiscretions behind them.  Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento to learn how he can help.

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.

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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.

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