Being arrested is frightening and confusing. You probably don't know what will happen next, and you're undoubtedly worried about how this will affect the rest of your life. It can be tempting to simply listen to the police and plead guilty, particularly if you're facing a misdemeanor. But a criminal conviction, whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony, can have long-lasting repercussions.
You don't have to go through this alone. A skilled criminal defense attorney can give you the best possibility of obtaining a dismissal, reduced charges, plea bargain, or not guilty verdict.
What Happens After an Arrest?
It's important to understand what will happen after your arrest leading up to your trial. It's also important to have legal representation as soon as possible.
- Preliminary Arraignment
After the police arrest and charge you, you will appear before a District Judge, otherwise known as a Magisterial District Judge or MDJ, in the Magisterial District Court. Bucks County has 18 magisterial district courts located throughout the county. At your preliminary arraignment, the MDJ will ensure that you understand the charges against you, your rights, and your right to an attorney. The court will make sure you have a copy of the criminal complaint and an affidavit of probable cause.
The MDJ will also consider whether to allow you to post bail or release you on your own recognizance. In determining bail, the court will look at your arrest history, work and employment history, and any ties you have to the community to determine whether you are a flight risk. If you post bail and fail to show for a future hearing, you will forfeit your bail, and the court will issue a warrant for your arrest. You are more likely to be released on your own recognizance or to have the judge set bail at a lower amount if you have an attorney at the arraignment. Your attorney can also offer to mitigate your flight risk by surrendering your passport or offering electronic monitoring after your release.
At your preliminary arraignment, the court will also set a date for your preliminary hearing. If you enter a diversionary program, you will waive your preliminary hearing, and your case will move to the Court of Common Pleas.
- Preliminary Hearing
Your preliminary hearing will also be before the Magisterial District Judge. At the hearing, the district attorney must make a prima facie case against you for the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth must present evidence to the court that:
- Someone committed a crime and
- You, more likely than not, committed that crime
The Commonwealth has the burden of proving each element of the crime. However, the standard is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” as it is in a criminal trial. Rather, 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.
Your preliminary hearing isn't a criminal trial, and, as the defendant, you can't introduce evidence and cross-examine witnesses. You can't:
- Introduce an alibi witness,
- Challenge the validity of witness identification, or
- Argue for the suppression of evidence.
While you can waive a preliminary hearing, it's a good opportunity for you and your attorney to see the Commonwealth's evidence against you and the witnesses that might bring to trial.
If the MDJ does not feel there is enough evidence to make a prima facie case at the preliminary hearing, they will dismiss the charges. If the Commonwealth does make a prima facie case, the MDJ will refer the case to the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas. If the district attorney agrees to admit you to a diversionary program, the MDJ will waive your case to the Court of Common Pleas without conducting a preliminary hearing.
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. An experienced criminal defense attorney will understand that discussing the case with the prosecutor before the preliminary hearing may pave the way for a reduction in charges or a plea agreement.
If the MDJ holds your case over for trial, your formal arraignment will happen through the Court of Common Pleas, the trial court for Bucks County. Arraignments in Bucks County happen on Fridays, and the court usually schedules them for 30 days after your preliminary hearing.
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. If you have an attorney, you may be able to skip an appearance at the arraignment with a “Waiver of Arraignment” form.
- Pre-trial Hearings
Before trial, you may have several pre-trial hearings, also known as “calls of the list” in Bucks County. First, you will have a status conference to inform the court of the case's progress, including any outstanding discovery requests or plea negotiations.
After the arraignment, your attorney can file discovery requests, asking for information, reports, statements, and recordings related to your case. Your attorney may also file any necessary motions, like motions to suppress evidence or motions in limine. The court will typically hold a hearing before trial to decide these issues and any dispositive motions.
Your trial will typically progress through a predictable pattern. If you have requested a jury trial, the court will have potential jurors available on the day your trial begins.
- Jury Selection: During voir dire, both sides will have the opportunity to question potential jurors about any possible conflicts of interest and whether or not they believe they can be impartial. Both sides have an equal number of “peremptory strikes” they may use to remove a juror they don't believe can be impartial.
- Opening Statements: During opening statements, each attorney will introduce their case and explain what they believe the facts at trial will show.
- Prosecution's Case: The prosecution goes first, introducing evidence and witnesses that support the Commonwealth's case against you. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine all of the prosecution's witnesses.
- Defendant's Case: The defendant goes next, with your attorney introducing witnesses and evidence to support your defense. The prosecution will have the opportunity to cross-examine all of your witnesses, including you if you testify in your defense.
- Closing Statements: After each party concludes their case, the parties offer closing statements to summarize what the facts at trial showed and to persuade the jury.
- Jury Instructions and Deliberations: After closing arguments, the court will give the jury instructions on the law and deliberation. The jury will then deliberate in seclusion until they come to a verdict. The jury's decision must be unanimous for a guilty verdict.
If the jury finds you not guilty, the court will release you after some processing. If the jury finds you guilty, the court will sentence you according to statutory guidelines. You have the right to appeal the verdict.
Diversionary Programs in Bucks County
In Bucks County, the courts have several diversionary programs that offer supervision, treatment, and community service in place of automatic incarceration. These programs reduce recidivism and help correct behaviors that lead to criminal conduct.
- Accelerated Rehabilitative Diversionary Program (ARD): ARD is a special intervention program available for DUI, minor drug cases, misdemeanor offenses, and selected nonviolent felonies. As part of ARD, the court may place you on probation, order you to attend drug or alcohol counseling, pay fines, restitution, and court costs.
- Drug Court: Drug court is available for those who may have committed a crime because of drug dependence or addiction. Drug court treatment has four 90-day phases that involve drug treatment, weekly drug tests, electronic monitoring, and counseling.
- Mental Health Court: Mental health court is available for those with a confirmed mental illness diagnosis. This diversionary program may involve managing your medication, therapy, and drug treatment.
- Veterans Court: Veterans court is available for former service members already receiving federal or state veterans' services. The court assigns a veteran mentor and may require drug or alcohol treatment or counseling.
Hire an Experienced Bucks County Criminal Defense Attorney
Having a criminal conviction on your record, whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony, can have far-reaching effects. It can affect:
- Custody arrangements for your children
- Professional licensing like medical and teaching licenses
- Your career, particularly if you work in finance, hold a security clearance, or need to carry a gun for work
- Your ability to obtain a loan or rent an apartment
- Your ability to own, possess, or purchase a firearm
If you're facing a first-time offense in Bucks County, it's important that you seek the guidance of a skilled criminal defense lawyer. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania attorney who has helped many people obtain dismissals, reduced charges or sentencing, and placement in diversionary programs. You don't have to navigate a first-time offense alone. Call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to set up a consultation.