First Time Offenders – Dauphin County, Pennsylvania

Being arrested for the first time is scary. You're probably wondering if you'll have a criminal record and if there's any point in fighting this. What will happen after your arrest? Will there be a trial? And do you need a lawyer? Knowing what's coming can help you prepare and make plans to hire a skilled criminal defense attorney to guide you through the process.

What Happens After Your Arrest?

After the police arrest and charge you, you will appear in Dauphin County Court before a Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) for a preliminary arraignment and a preliminary hearing. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 540.

  1. Preliminary Arraignment

At your preliminary arraignment, the MDJ will inform you of the charges against you and your right to counsel and ensure that you have a copy of the criminal complaint and the affidavit of probable cause for the charges against you. At this preliminary arraignment, the MDJ will also set a date for your preliminary hearing and determine whether to allow bail. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 524.

In determining whether to permit you to post bail, the MDJ will consider that this is your first arrest, your work and employment history, and your ties to the community to determine whether you are a flight risk. If you post bail and fail to appear at a future hearing, you will forfeit your bail money, and the court will issue a warrant for your arrest.

  1. Preliminary Hearing

Your preliminary hearing will also be before an MDJ in their office in Dauphin County or at the designated Central Court at Dauphin County Prison. At this hearing, the district attorney must show a “prima facie case” against you. The Commonwealth doesn't have to show that you committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt” at this hearing, rather only that you likely committed the crime by a “preponderance of the evidence.” In other words, the district attorney must show that it's more likely than not that you committed the crime.

At this hearing, the defense is typically not permitted to introduce witnesses or evidence. You also won't be permitted to challenge an eyewitness's validity, introduce an alibi witness, or argue that the court should suppress evidence. Most cases are held over for trial if the state presents enough evidence. If not, the MDJ may dismiss some or all of the charges.

While you may waive a preliminary hearing, it is a good chance to see the case against you and any witnesses the Commonwealth might call at trial. Before the hearing, your attorney may also be able to negotiate your misdemeanor charge down to a summary offense, or if charged with felony charges, negotiate a prospective resolution at a later point in the process. For a summary offense, you may pay a fine, enter a diversionary program, or both.

  1. Transfer to Trial Court & Arraignment

If the MDJ holds your case over for trial, the court will transfer your case to the Court of Common Pleas. This court is the trial court for all criminal trials in Dauphin County. When the case moves to the Court of Common Pleas, you will then have a formal arraignment at either the Dauphin County Courthouse, the Central Court at Dauphin County Prison, or another designated court location. At times, arraignments may occur via video conference.

At your trial court arraignment, the court will advise you of your rights and ask you to plead guilty or not guilty. The court will also ensure you have a copy of the criminal indictment with the charges the district attorney intends to bring to trial.

  1. Pretrial Hearings

Before your trial, you may have one or more pretrial hearings, also known as a “call of the list.” The judge may often use these status conferences to hear updates on the case's progress, advise the judge whether a plea bargain is in progress, and allow your attorney to request discovery from the Commonwealth. Your attorney may ask for any:

  • Police reports related to the charges,
  • Witness statements,
  • Photos or videos,
  • Lab reports, and
  • Statements you made to the police.

At a pretrial conference, the judge may also dispose of any outstanding motions between the parties, including disputes over evidentiary matters that the court should decide before trial.

  1. Trial

At trial, you have the right to request a jury. Or, you can elect to have a judge determine your guilt or innocence at trial. To select a jury, both sides will ask a series of questions to determine whether the prospective jurors can be impartial. Each side has an equal number of peremptory challenges, or strikes, they can use to remove jurors they believe can't be objective. Selecting a jury typically takes about half a day, depending on the complexity of the case.

Once the court impanels the jury, both sides will have the chance to give opening statements outlining their theory of the case and what the facts at trial will show. First, the prosecution will present its case against you, calling witnesses to introduce evidence and testimony against you. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine each witness. Next, your attorney will present your defense, calling witnesses, and introducing evidence. The district attorney will cross-examine each witness, including you if you testify in your defense.

After each side presents its case and closing arguments, the jury will deliberate. A jury must come to a unanimous conclusion to find you guilty. Moreover, the Commonwealth must show that you committed each element of the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

  1. Post-Trial

If the jury or judge found you guilty, the judge will determine your sentence according to statutory guidelines. If the judge or jury found you not guilty, the court will release you after processing.

Diversionary Programs in Dauphin County

There are several options for diversion programs in Dauphin County that allow first-time offenders to have rehabilitation rather than routine incarceration. The goal of these programs is to prevent recidivism or a repeat offense by working to solve underlying problems such as drug or alcohol abuse.

  1. Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition

Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) gives nonviolent first-time offenders in Pennsylvania an alternative to jail time. If accepted into the ARD program, you will be under a period of supervision for two years, similar to probation. During this supervisory period, you will undergo alcohol or drug treatment and complete community service. If you fail to complete the ARD requirements, the state will remove you from the program and schedule your original charges for trial.

Applicants to the ARD program must be first-time offenders without prior criminal convictions in the last ten years and no prior ARD dispositions. The district attorney typically has wide discretion over who to accept into the ARD program. About 90% of people who go through the ARD program face charges for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. However, some DUI offenses are ineligible for the ARD program:

  • If someone was killed or seriously injured in the accident that led to the DUI arrest,
  • If someone under the age of 14 was in the car during the DUI, or
  • If the defendant has a prior DUI conviction in the last ten years or a previous ARD disposition.
  1. Other Diversionary Programs

There are other diversionary programs in Pennsylvania available for first-time offenders in extenuating circumstances, including:

  • Veterans Court: Veterans Court is available for U.S. Veterans receiving VA medical or mental health treatment. A veteran is typically assigned a veteran mentor and must also go through counseling and alcohol or drug treatment.
  • Mental Health Court: Mental Health Court is available for defendants who have a diagnosed mental illness that may have led to committing a crime. This diversionary program offers mental health treatment instead of incarceration and may also require that the defendant manage medication and therapy during a period of supervision.
  • Drug Treatment Court: Drug Treatment Court is available for defendants with a drug addiction that may have resulted in committing a crime. The defendant must complete treatment for drug addiction in four 90-day phases. The program also includes weekly drug tests, electronic monitoring, and counseling.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

Aside from possible criminal penalties, including fines or jail time, a criminal record can affect your life in other ways. Both misdemeanors and felonies can appear on a background check, keeping you from certain careers or professions. A criminal conviction can also keep you from college or graduate school, make it harder to lease an apartment or obtain a loan for a mortgage.

If you're facing criminal charges in Dauphin County, you need to speak with an experienced defense attorney to understand the possible consequences and discuss your options. Attorney Joseph Lento has represented countless criminal defendants in Pennsylvania, negotiating lower sentences, dismissals, and diversionary programs for his clients charged with misdemeanors and felonies and also summary offenses. Call the Lento Law Firm at (215) 535-5353 to set up a consultation.

Contact Us Today!

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than 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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