Being arrested in Berks County is frightening and stressful. If this is your first arrest, you likely have no idea what happens next, and you're worried about your future. If, like the rest of us, you've watched too many episodes of Law & Order or CSI, you're worried about whether it's even possible to show that you're innocent. Are you going to jail?
The good news is that you don't have to go through this alone. An experienced Berks County criminal defense attorney can guide you through this process, let you know your options, and give you the best possibility of success through negotiation, trial, or a diversionary program.
The Process: What Happens Next?
The first step in understanding the Berks County criminal justice system is to understand what happens after the police arrest you and what will happen every step of this journey.
- Preliminary Arraignment
After the police arrest you and charge you, they will take you before a Magisterial District Judge or MDJ in Berks County Magisterial District Court for a preliminary arraignment, required by the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 540. At this hearing, the MDJ will inform you of the charges against you and your right to counsel and ensure you have a copy of the criminal complaint and an affidavit of probable cause.
At the preliminary arraignment, the MDJ will also set your preliminary hearing date and determine whether to set bail. In determining bail, the magistrate will review the charges against you, your work history, your ties to the community, and whether you've ever failed to appear at a hearing in the past to determine whether or not you should have the opportunity to post bail. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 524.
- Preliminary Hearing
Your preliminary hearing will take place before a Magisterial District Judge in Berks County Magisterial District Court. At the hearing, the Commonwealth must present a “prima facie case.” They must present evidence to the MDJ that someone committed a crime and that you committed that crime by a preponderance of the evidence. The Commonwealth has the burden of proving each element of the crime. If the MDJ believes the Commonwealth presents enough evidence that it's more likely than not that you committed the crime, the MDJ will hold the case over for trial. If not, the MDJ will dismiss some or all of the charges.
This hearing isn't, however, a criminal trial. That means there are limits to the kind of evidence you can bring to a preliminary hearing as the defendant. You can't:
- Introduce an alibi witness,
- Challenge the validity of witness identification, or
- Argue for the suppression of evidence.
You can waive a pretrial hearing and proceed directly to the trial court.
But a preliminary hearing is useful for you and your attorney to see what witnesses the Commonwealth might present at trial and evaluate the evidence against you.
At this point, your attorney may be able to negotiate your misdemeanor or felony charges down to a summary offense. For a summary offense, you may pay a fine, enter a diversionary program, or both.
If the MDJ holds your case over for trial, then the trial court in Berks County, known as the Court of Common Pleas, will formally arraign you. This formal arraignment is typically the day the case officially moves from the Magisterial District Court to the trial court. Sometimes, the arraignment occurs at the Berks County Courthouse and sometimes at the Berks County Prison in Bern Township. Arraignments can also happen by video conference when necessary.
At the formal arraignment, the court will advise you of your rights and ask you to plead guilty or not guilty. You will receive a copy of the criminal indictment listing the charges the Commonwealth will take to trial.
- Pretrial Hearing
Before your trial, you may have one or more pretrial hearings or “calls of the list” in Berks County. Every county in Pennsylvania has its own procedures for pretrial hearings. If you hire an experienced Berks County criminal defense attorney, they will be familiar with specific local procedures.
The pretrial hearing is a status conference with the trial judge to let them know how the case is proceeding if there are any outstanding discovery requests, and whether a plea deal is possible or if the matter is going to trial. At times, the parties may be able to arrange a plea deal during a status conference.
Your attorney may also make discovery requests from the district attorney, police, and labs, including:
- Any statements you may have made to the police,
- Witness statements,
- Lab reports,
- Police reports,
- Videos or photos related to your case.
At pretrial hearings, the judge may also dispose of final matters or schedule hearings on specific evidentiary issues your attorney raises with the court. Following the pretrial conference, the court will schedule your case for trial.
Once the court places your case on the schedule for trial, the court expects both the Commonwealth and the defendant to be ready for trial on that date and will take steps to ensure that a jury panel is ready for trial. While postponements do happen for legitimate reasons, you shouldn't assume the judge will postpone your trial.
At trial, the Commonwealth must prove that you are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is never the defendant's burden to prove that they aren't guilty. The Commonwealth has the burden of proving each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. But before the jury or judge evaluates the evidence, there are some steps through which a criminal trial will progress:
- Jury Selection: Jury selection typically takes about half a day, depending on the trial's complexity. Each side selects the jury and has the opportunity to ask prospective jurors if they can be impartial and whether they may have any conflicts of interest. Each side has an equal number of peremptory challenges that allow them to strike or remove a potential juror they feel cannot be impartial.
- Opening Statements: After the jury is in place, the parties will proceed with opening statements. The opening statement presents each side's case and what they believe the facts presented during the trial will show.
- Commonwealth's Case: The Commonwealth presents its case first and calls witnesses to introduce and support its evidence. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine each witness.
- Defense's Case: After the Commonwealth rests, it's your turn. Your attorney will call witnesses to introduce and support evidence in your defense. The prosecution will be able to cross-examine each defense witness, including you, if you choose to testify in your defense.
- Closing Arguments: After each party rests its case, they will proceed with closing arguments. Both attorneys will review what they believe the facts at trial showed and try to persuade the jury. Your attorney only has to put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. It is the Commonwealth's burden to prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Jury Instructions: After closing arguments, the judge will explain the law to the jury and give them instructions.
- Jury Deliberations: The jurors will deliberate in a closed room to determine a guilty or not guilty verdict. Their verdict must be unanimous.
- After Trial
If the jury finds you guilty, the court will proceed to sentencing. In Pennsylvania, the judge typically determines your sentence according to statutory guidelines. You may appeal the verdict. If the jury finds you not guilty, the court will release you after processing.
Diversionary Programs in Berks County
There are several diversionary programs in Berks County designed to offer rehabilitation over incarceration and tackle some underlying issues that can lead to criminal activity.
- Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition
The Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) is a special pretrial intervention program available for various cases, including DUIs, minor drug cases, misdemeanor offenses, and some nonviolent felonies. As part of ARD, you may be placed on probation, ordered to attend drug or alcohol counseling, pay fines, restitution, and court costs.
- Mental Health Court:
Mental health court is only available to those with a mental health diagnosis. This diversionary program may involve managing your medication, therapy, and drug treatment.
- Veterans Court
Veterans court is available for U.S. veterans receiving treatment through federal or state Veterans Affairs programs. The court assigns defendants a veteran mentor and typically requires additional therapy or drug treatment.
- DUI Treatment Court
DUI treatment is available for those arrested for a third DUI and reserved for those with severe alcohol problems or addiction. Defendants spend 90 days in jail and are then electronically monitored. Defendants also go through intensive substance abuse treatment for 18 months. This program isn't available for first offenders.
- Drug Treatment Court
Drug treatment court is available for defendants with a drug addiction that may have resulted in committing a crime. This treatment court has four 90-day phases and involves drug treatment, weekly drug tests, electronic monitoring, and counseling.
Berks County Criminal Defense Attorney
If you're facing an arrest for a first offense in Berks County, you shouldn't try to do this alone. You need a skilled defense attorney to guide you along the way. Attorney Joseph Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney who has represented many clients in misdemeanor and felony cases, helping them get reduced sentences or their charges dismissed. Call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to set up a consultation.