When you're facing an arrest for the first time, it can be frightening and overwhelming. You may have no idea what happens next, and it can be tempting to simply plead guilty and hope for the best. It can seem too complicated to figure out the whole process. After all, it's only a first-time offense, right?
Unfortunately, with a criminal record, whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony, you can face other life-altering consequences, including limiting your educational and career opportunities. But you don't have to figure this out alone. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney like Attorney Joseph D. Lento can ensure you have the best possible outcome in your case.
What Happens After My Arrest?
It's important to understand what will happen every step of the way until you and your attorney resolve your case. We'll break the process down for you from the preliminary arraignment to a diversionary program or trial.
After the police arrest and charge you, you'll appear before a District Judge, often called a Magisterial District Judge or MDJ. MDJs are elected to oversee their Magisterial District Court for a term of six years. Your preliminary arraignment may happen in person at the Delaware County Courthouse, by video, or another authorized location.
At the preliminary hearing, the MDJ will ensure that you understand the charges against you, your rights, and your right to an attorney. The MDJ will also set a date for your preliminary hearing and will also consider whether to allow you to post bail. In considering this, the judge will look at your arrest history, your employment or work history, and your ties to the community, such as belonging to any local civics or religious organizations, volunteer work, and more. The judge will ultimately evaluate whether you are a flight risk. In some cases, an attorney may be able to get you released without bail or on your own recognizance. Your attorney can also offer to mitigate any possible flight risk by turning over your passport or agreeing to electronic monitoring. If you do post bail and fail to appear for a future hearing, you will forfeit your bail, and the court will issue a warrant for your arrest.
- Preliminary Hearing
Your preliminary hearing will also take place before the Magisterial District Court. Sometimes these hearings occur in the courthouse, at the county prison, or the MDJ's office. At your hearing, the Commonwealth must show a prima facie case against you. The judge will evaluate whether:
- There was probable cause to believe someone committed a crime,
- There is probable cause to believe that you committed the crime.
The district attorney doesn't need to establish this “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Commonwealth only needs to show probable cause. During the hearing, the district attorney will call some witnesses and introduce evidence. However, this is not a full trial, and you and your attorney will not have the opportunity to cross-examine these witnesses. You also won't be allowed to:
- Introduce an alibi witness,
- Challenge the validity of witness identification, or
- Argue for the suppression of evidence.
While you can waive your preliminary hearing, it's a good chance for you and your attorney to see what evidence and witnesses the Commonwealth intends to introduce at trial. It's also a good chance for your attorney to negotiate with the district attorney to see if they can agree to a plea bargain, a lesser charge, or a diversionary program for you. If you enter a diversionary program, you will waive your right to a preliminary hearing, and the Court of Common Pleas will take jurisdiction over your case.
If the MDJ finds enough evidence to proceed, the Magisterial District Court will transfer your case to the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Before your formal arraignment, the district attorney will file charges with a “Criminal Information.” This document lists the charges the Commonwealth intends to bring to trial and the factual basis for these charges.
At your arraignment, the judge will ensure you understand the Criminal Information and ask you to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. The court will also provide you and your attorney with all of your pretrial deadlines, including a status conference and deadlines for discovery and dispositive motions.
- Pretrial Hearings
After your arraignment and before your trial, you may have several pretrial hearings or status conferences, which are also known as the “Call of the List.” These hearings are an opportunity for both parties to update the court on the case's progress, outstanding discovery requests, and any plea bargain negotiations. Before trial, the judge may use a final pretrial hearing to decide any outstanding evidentiary issues.
If you elect for a jury trial, the court will ensure that a jury pool is available for the day your trial begins.
- Jury Selection: During jury selection, each party will have a chance to ask potential jurors about any possible conflicts of interest and whether they can believe they'll be impartial. Each side will also have the ability to strike jurors they believe can't be impartial.
- Opening Statements: After the court seats the jury, the parties open the trial by giving opening statements outlining what they believe the facts will show.
- Commonwealth's Case: The Commonwealth presents its case first and calls witnesses to introduce and support its evidence. Your attorney will cross-examine each witness.
- Defense's Case: After the Commonwealth rests, your attorney will call witnesses to introduce and support evidence in your defense. The prosecution will cross-examine each witness, including you, if you choose to testify in your defense.
- Closing Arguments: After each party closes its case, each will give a closing argument, summing up their theory of the case and what they believe the facts show.
- Jury Instructions: After closing arguments, the judge will explain the law to the jury and give them instructions for deliberations.
- Jury Deliberations: The jurors will deliberate in a closed room to determine a unanimous guilty or not guilty verdict. To find the defendant guilty, the jurors must find them guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
If the jury finds you not guilty, the court will release you after some processing. If the jury finds you guilty, the judge will sentence you based on statutory guidelines. You will have the right to appeal a guilty verdict.
Diversionary Programs in Delaware County
Delaware County has several diversionary programs available for first-time offenders. The Commonwealth designed these programs to allow first-time offenders and offenders facing mental illness, drug, or alcohol abuse to receive addiction assistance, counseling, and supervision or probation. Helping these individuals fix the root of crime-causing problems, rather than incarcerating them, can prevent recidivism and lower crime rates.
- Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program (ARD):
ARD is a diversionary program approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to assist first-time offenders. More than 90% of ARD participants are individuals charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But ARD is also available for misdemeanor offenses and some nonviolent felonies. DUI applicants must apply within 30 days of the MDJ signing the charging documents. Other first-time offenders do not have an application deadline.
If accepted into the ARD program, you must waiver your right to a preliminary hearing and a formal arraignment. Instead, a judge at the Court of Common Pleas will sentence you to probation and order that you pay fines and complete community service. The court may also order you to complete drug or alcohol counseling. After completing the ARD program, you can ask the court to expunge your criminal record.
- Mental Health Court:
Mental health court is available for those with a diagnosed mental illness, which may have led to the commission of a crime. This diversionary program may involve managing your medication, supervised probation, and mental health treatment.
- Drug Court:
Drug court is available to those who may have committed a crime because of drug abuse. This program has four 90-day phases that involve weekly drug tests, drug addiction treatment, counseling, and electronic monitoring.
- Veterans Court:
Veterans court is only available for former U.S. service members receiving care through federal or state Veterans Affairs programs. Each offender is assigned a veteran mentor and typically must go through additional drug or alcohol treatment and counseling.
Hire a Skilled Delaware County Criminal Defense Attorney
When you're facing a first-time offense in Delaware County, you don't want to do this alone. You need a skilled criminal defense attorney to guide you through the process and ensure the best possible outcome. A criminal record can have long-lasting consequences on your personal life and your career.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced criminal defense attorney who has represented many clients facing first-time offenses through the criminal justice system. He's helped many clients obtain dismissals, reduced charges, or placement in diversionary programs. Joseph Lento can help you too. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 for a consultation to discuss your options, or contact us online.