With all the information on crime and what happens to the accused, fiction and nonfiction, in the news and in the entertainment industry, rarely does a person think that it could happen to him or her. Even rarer is a case where the alleged offender understands not only what he or she is charged with, but also the very real and very extensive criminal process he or she faces.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the state of Pennsylvania, it can be beneficial to understand the criminal process that you face – whether you have been falsely accused or have simply made a mistake.
Criminal Process in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Throughout the criminal process, the most important thing to remember is that your future is at stake. Hiring a competent attorney with extensive experience in the justice system, in and out of the courtroom, could be an important step in your journey to reduced charges – or even freedom. Joseph Lento of Lento Law Firm has over a decade of experience in the justice field and established his practice on the premise of helping people through the difficult process of a Pennsylvania criminal charge.
Whether you've been charged with petty theft in county, county simple assault, or something more serious like DUI or manslaughter in Philadelphia, Joseph Lento will be with you every step of the way building a defense for your future. Call (215) 535-5353 today for your free consultation to see what Joseph Lento can do for your Pennsylvania criminal case.
An Overview of Pennsylvania's Criminal Justice System
- Criminal Complaint
- Preliminary Arraignment and Bail
- Preliminary Hearing
- Formal Arraignment
- Call of the List and Pretrial Conference
- Trial by Judge or Trial by Jury
- Common Pennsylvania Misdemeanors and Felonies
- Pennsylvania Criminal Process Resources
The first formal step in the criminal process after the crime is committed and the initial investigation is complete is the criminal complaint. In most cases, it is the law enforcement officer who begins this process by filing a criminal complaint with the district justice. The criminal complaint is a form that outlines important details of the case, such as the identity of the defendant, crimes allegedly committed, and the factual basis for the criminal charges.
If the law enforcement department does not file a complaint, it is possible in Philadelphia for a private person to file a private criminal complaint. These complaints must be reviewed and approved by the Assistant District Attorney in the county the act was allegedly committed. If the assistant D.A. does approve the criminal complaint, the case will proceed as if the complaint was filed by a law enforcement agency.
After the complaint, the defendant's presence will be requested at a preliminary hearing through summons, compelled by a warranted arrest, or secured by warrantless arrest. If you are summoned and show up to your preliminary hearing voluntarily, no preliminary arraignment is necessary. However if you are arrested, warrant or no warrant, you must appear before a district judge in a preliminary arraignment.
At the preliminary arraignment, you will receive a copy of the criminal complaint and advised of your rights, after which a preliminary hearing will be set within 3 to 10 days after this proceeding. Once you have been formally charged of the crime, the judge will set bail. If you post bail, you are agreeing to return for your preliminary hearing in exchange for being freed from custody. If the charges are serious enough, you may have to wait to post bail until the judge hears your case at a more formal proceeding. Though this process is preliminary, having a qualified Pennsylvania preliminary hearing defense attorney present could still help protect your rights and help your case.
"How does a preliminary hearing in Philadelphia work?" The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to show whether or not a crime has been committed against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as whether or not you are probably the correct offender of that crime. This is also known as proving a prima facie case. The evidence against you will be presented either by a law enforcement officer or the Assistant District Attorney, depending on the county the offense was allegedly committed in.
The preliminary hearing is heard by a district justice. If prima facie is presented, your case will move forward and be held for court. If enough evidence does not exist to prove prima facie, you should be released. Having a Pennsylvania preliminary hearing attorney at your side in this process is critical in protecting your rights and could help prevent the Commonwealth from proving prima facie.
The formal arraignment is the process in which you will be provided with a copy of the formal charging document and be advised of your rights, including the various pretrial pleadings that may vary by crime and county. Additionally, you will be notified of any deadlines to file pretrial motions, such as motion to suppress evidence and motion for continuance.
This arraignment may or may not take place before a judge and the DA is not required to be represented – though they are required to respond to any pleas made. The presence of your Philadelphia criminal defense attorney at the formal arraignment is critical to planning your defense strategy and ensuring your rights are protected.
Generally, the next step in the Philadelphia criminal process is the pretrial conference. However, in some counties in Pennsylvania, such as Franklin County, there is first a Call of the List. During the Call of the List, you inform the judge the status of your case and request a continuance, enter a plea negotiation, or list the case for trial. If you list the case for trial at the Call of the List, you will set the date for your pretrial conference.
Most counties only have the pretrial conference. This is the step in the process where you, your attorney, the judge, and a representative for the District Attorney determine the course of disposition, including finalizing pretrial matters such as motions and a date for jury selection, if applicable. The judge may also set deadlines for any outstanding issues before trial that are not resolved in this conference. After this conference, if you have not entered a plea bargain it is time for trial.
If you choose to enter a plea of not guilty and don't accept a plea bargain, you then have the right to choose a trial by judge or a trial by jury. A trial by jury involves a jury selection process in which you and your criminal defense attorney, along with the District Attorney, will review questionnaires and ask questions of the potential jurors, alternating striking people from the list with the DA until there are only 14 jurors left. If no jury selection is involved you will simply appear before a judge on your designated court date.
In the court room, your attorney and the state will have a chance to make opening statements. The District Attorney, representing the interests of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will then present his or her case with related evidence and witnesses. You will then have a chance to cross-examine each witness. This is an important step, because the DA must prove beyond a reasonable doubt both that a crime was committed and that you, the defendant, committed it. Cross-examination is your opportunity to create doubt in the DA's case.
Next is you and your attorney's chance to present your evidence and witnesses if you so choose, which the DA may also cross-examine. After your opportunity to present your case, closing arguments are made. Having an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney in the process may be crucial to create sufficient doubt in the state's case against you for a not-guilty verdict.
If you had your case dismissed or received a verdict of not guilty from the jury or judge, you are immediately released and do not have to face sentencing. However if you entered a guilty plea or were found guilty this is another crucial step in which having an experienced Philadelphia lawyer at your side may help in protecting your future.
Usually, sentencing occurs two weeks to 90 days from the time you are adjudicated guilty. At this time, the judge will hear arguments from your defense and the District Attorney with recommendation about how you should be punished within the law. You also have the opportunity to speak if you so choose. The judge will decide what consequences you face based on the case at trial and these arguments. Depending on the severity of your case, you could be facing probation, fines, jail time, community service, or rehabilitation programs.
Initially, a misdemeanor offense may not seem as serious of an ordeal, especially when compared to felony offenses in Pennsylvania. However, misdemeanors are still a crime an Pennsylvania still has strict penalties when it comes to these crimes. Misdemeanor offenses common in Philadelphia include:
- Marijuana Possession
- Simple Assault
- Drug Paraphernalia Possession
Felonies in Pennsylvania can have a serious impact on your future. In addition to the severe consequences imposed by Pennsylvania law, you could also lose educational and occupational opportunities, as well as basic rights like the right to votes. Common felonies committed in Philadelphia include:
- Aggravated Assault
- Drug Trafficking
- Armed Robbery
- Sexual Assault
- DUI Homicide by Vehicle
Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure – This site is a direct link to Title 234 of the Pennsylvania code, which covers criminal procedure. View the law for yourself and see your rights and what to expect with your particular case.
Pennsylvania Courts Website - How the Courts Operate – This is a section of the website for the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania that details in layman's terms what to expect in the court process, whether your case is civil or criminal.
Frequently Asked Questions on Pennsylvania's Criminal Justice System
Whether you are facing misdemeanor charges or felony, and whether you are falsely accused or made a mistake, the criminal process in Pennsylvania is extensive and intimidating. Additionally, each step in the process, no matter how insignificant it seems, can be absolutely crucial when it comes to your defense strategy and, thus, your future. Having a qualified Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer with extensive justice experience by your side from the beginning could be the difference between a case dismissal and a trial, probation and jail time.
Joseph Lento of Lento Law Firm founded his own practice on the principle of giving high quality, customized defense services to citizens like you. This is your future and your freedom you are facing. If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Philadelphia call Joseph Lento today. Your first consultation is free so call (215) 535-5353 today to schedule yours.