If you or someone you love has been charged with an act of domestic violence, you probably feel overwhelmed and unsure of the next steps. First and foremost, you hire an experienced domestic violence defense attorney to help you through every step of the way. Doing so will ensure you're able to effectively assert your side of the story to prosecutors and the court.
After an arrest for domestic violence, the court process can be intimidating. To help ease your anxieties, it may be beneficial to better understand the process.
Arrests for Domestic Violence Charges
Under the laws of Pennsylvania at 23 Pa. C.S. § 6102, domestic violence is defined as occurring between:
- Family or household members
- Sexual or intimate partners
- Persons who share biological parenthood
If the incident you're accused of didn't occur between you and a person defined in one of the bullet points listed above, then then it probably doesn't meet the requirements to qualify as domestic violence. That said, your actions may still constitute another violent crime such as assault or battery. You should still contact a defense attorney if you're accused of any violent crime.
When a police officer is called on suspicion of domestic violence, they don't need an arrest warrant to take you into custody if they determine they have probable cause. To make a determination of probable cause, a police officer can infer domestic violence based on:
- Injuries to the victim
- Other corroborating evidence, like witness statements
Police officers can also seize any weapons they think may be associated with the domestic violence accusation.
The Pretrial Process for Domestic Violence Charges
The Preliminary Arraignment
Shortly after the arrest, you will appear before the magisterial district judge (or magistrate) and be advised of the criminal complaint against you. You may be granted or denied bond at this point. For those arrested for domestic violence, the judge may deny you bond if they believe you could pose additional risk to the victim if you are released from custody while you await further court proceedings.
The court will base their risk determination on a pretrial risk assessment and any defenses or context you're able to present at this time. It's important to utilize a skilled attorney when presenting your side of the story in a domestic violence case. Often, issues of domestic violence are highly emotional, and with your lawyer's guidance, you'll be better able to present your defense without letting the complicated feelings of the situation take control.
In some cases, the court will not release an individual on bond without certain restrictions attached. These restrictions may come as a restraining order or a no-contact order. If you are released on these conditions, it's critically important that you don't violate any conditions of the order, even if your accuser reaches out to you. If you and your accuser wish to reconcile, it's important you go through the court to dissolve the conditions of your release.
The Preliminary Hearing
A preliminary hearing will generally be held within ten days of the arrest, and the accused is required to attend. This hearing is designed to ensure individuals aren't wrongfully prosecuted. The prosecution must present enough evidence to establish that a crime was more likely than not committed. This burden of proof is relatively easy to meet, and you shouldn't despair if the court decides to pursue charges against you because the burden of proof required at trial is more difficult to overcome than at this stage.
The preliminary hearing provides the defendant with an opportunity to see what evidence the prosecution has against them. Additionally, it's the defendant's first time to present any justification or mitigating circumstances which may help with their defense. An experienced defense attorney will work at challenging the evidence against you during the preliminary hearing.
The Formal Arraignment
When facing misdemeanor and/or felony charges, if the court decides at the preliminary hearing that there is enough evidence against you to move your criminal case forward, you'll next attend the formal arraignment. The formal arraignment will usually occur within a month after you attend the preliminary hearing (although it can take longer depending on the county where you are charged). At this point, formal charges will be made against you, and you'll be required to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. You should never enter a plea without the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
If you plead not guilty and your domestic violence case proceeds to pre-trial proceedings in advance of potential trial, you and your attorney will begin the discovery process for your defense strategy.
The Trial Process for Domestic Violence Charges
If you choose to proceed with your charges with a not guilty plea, then your case will go to potential trial. While the pretrial process moves rather quickly, it could be months before the trial date is actually set. This can be frustrating for those accused of domestic violence, but it also allows you and your defense attorney an opportunity to thoroughly prepare to defend your case.
Pursuant to the United States Constitution, you can choose a trial by jury or a trial by judge. This is an important and strategic choice, and your attorney can help you decide which option best suits the facts of your case.
At trial, the prosecution must prove the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt. Each side will present opening statements, their case, and their closing arguments. After closing arguments, provided the case is decided by a judge and not the judge him/herself (which is known as a "bench" trial), the judge will issue instructions to the jury to explain how they can make their decision in accordance with the law. Finally, the jury will deliberate and return with their decision. A criminal defendant can only be found guilty of a charge if all 12 jurors unanimously find the defendant guilty. Frequently there are multiple charges against a defendant, and the jury could find the defendant guilty of some charges, but not others.
If you're found guilty of one or more charges, you will next be sentenced, and if not satisfied with the sentence, you will then have an opportunity to appeal, which is a separate process which can take years to come to a resolution.
When to Contact a PA Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer
You should contact PA criminal defense attorney as soon as you're accused of domestic violence. It is never too early to start your defense strategy. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have extensive experience helping clients overcome domestic violence charges in Pennsylvania, and if you or someone you love has been arrested or charged, call 888-535-3686 right away.