Northampton County properly bills itself as a “Great Place to Visit” and “Great Place to Live.” Its agriculture, business, arts, education, and recreation, among other assets featured in its county guide, attest to its merits. The one thing that you may not want to do, though, in Northampton County is to suffer a first-ever criminal charge.
Pennsylvania crime-commission statistics show that offense and arrest rates in Northampton County are pretty significantly lower than across the rest of Pennsylvania. Yet those same statistics show that Northampton County nonetheless arrests well over one-thousand persons each year. As is typical in other locales, property crimes like theft make up most of those arrests. Northampton County murders and other violent crimes are fortunately relatively rare. Yet, the county clearly has the law-enforcement resources, personnel, and systems to aggressively prosecute crimes of all types.
Why a First Charge Is the Worst
Almost any criminal charge is for anyone a serious matter. Yet first offenders in Northampton County and elsewhere face peculiar challenges. Those who are entirely unfamiliar with criminal procedures often find them frightening. An arrest alone is scary and hugely embarrassing. Incarceration, even briefly, is worse. A first offender's tendency is to do anything at all that appears to end the harrowing experience, including classic blunders like:
- ignoring the right to remain silent;
- admitting crimes not committed;
- admitting crimes not charged;
- implicating others, whether guilty or innocent;
- forgoing defense counsel;
- pleading guilty to crimes not committed; and
- pleading guilty, ignoring extenuating circumstances.
The biggest error, though, is not to realize that Northampton County's criminal justice system offers responsible options intended to protect the innocent while rehabilitating the guilty. Criminal prosecutions are not a game for the guilty to manipulate. Northampton County's goal in prosecuting first-time offenses is largely to rehabilitate first-time offenders before repeat offenses plague the populace. Like other counties and jurisdictions, Northampton County would rather that the first offender see the light than suffer the darkness.
The point is that first-time offenders have both important rights and reasonable choices. Don't plead guilty at the first opportunity without having had any legal counsel. Criminal convictions can lead not only to incarceration and fines but to job loss, loss of licenses, and reputational harm that affects family, social, and business relationships. Don't relinquish important options and rights.
Better to beat or reduce a first offense than to carry a conviction for the rest of one's life. To avoid conviction entirely, or to reduce the charge and the hard consequences of conviction and sentence, get experienced counsel from Pennsylvania criminal-defense attorney Joseph D. Lento. The Lento Law Firm helps first-time offenders pursue all options for the best legal and personal outcomes.
Northampton County's Criminal Courts
Northampton County's courts, forming Pennsylvania's Third Judicial District, are located in the County Courthouse at 669 Washington Street in Easton. The County's Common Pleas Court is the court of general jurisdiction, meaning that it hears both civil cases, such as divorces, personal injury cases, and business disputes, as well as criminal cases. If a first-time offender's case proceeds to formal arraignment, pretrial, and trial, then one of the judges of the Common Pleas Court will handle those proceedings.
Northampton County's Common Pleas Court, in their criminal cases, relies on the support of Magisterial District Courts. The County's Magisterial District Courts every year handle around 70,000 small cases involving traffic offenses, landlord-tenant disputes, and civil cases having a value under $12,000. Their main contributions in more-serious misdemeanor and felony criminal cases are to handle the preliminary arraignment and preliminary hearing in those cases.
Preliminary arraignment before the magisterial district judge, who reads the defendant the charge, usually happens within hours of an arrest. Within a few days or two weeks at most, the magisterial district judge will also hold the preliminary hearing. If the law and evidence support the charge, then the magisterial district judge binds the defendant over to the Common Pleas Court for further proceedings.
The Significance of Criminal Procedure
First-time offenders in Northampton County have constitutional due-process rights to fight criminal charges through traditional court procedures. The preliminary hearing just described is the first, and often the most significant, of those protective procedures. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must present evidence showing probable cause that the defendant committed the charged offense, in the absence of which the magisterial district judge should dismiss the charge.
Skilled and experienced trial counsel like Pennsylvania criminal-defense attorney Joseph D. Lento can ensure that the Magisterial District Court conducts the preliminary hearing as the law intends it. The defense attorney's cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and argument of law and fact to the magisterial district judge may result in dismissal of all charges.
If instead the magisterial district judge finds probable cause, and the Magisterial District Court binds the defendant over to Common Pleas Court, then the Common Pleas Court will formally arraign the defendant. This formal arraignment is where the defendant learns of the right to counsel and a jury, and enters a plea. The Common Pleas Court judge will also set bail, establishing the terms of the defendant's freedom while awaiting trial.
While counsel plays an important role at each of these early stages, that role becomes critical at the pretrial conference, where the judge addresses potential trial issues such as the admissibility of evidence. The prosecution also typically offers plea deals at the pretrial conference. Experienced trial counsel like criminal-defense attorney Joseph D. Lento can help a first-time offender distinguish fair offers from unfair offers and may negotiate a better offer.
Skilled and aggressive criminal-defense counsel is also critical if the charges proceed to trial. Opening statement, cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, direct examination of defense witnesses, and closing argument are all special advocacy skills. If the court convicts or the defendant pleads guilty, then defense counsel can also be critical to ensuring a fair rather than an unduly harsh sentence. An appeal is also possible if factual or legal grounds support a challenge to the case's outcome.
A Better Way: Diversion
First-time offenders facing drunk-driving charges in Northampton County have a better course available to them than court proceedings--if they know well enough to pursue that option. Northampton County offers a Driving Under the Influence court-diversion program that helps many first-time offenders facing drunk-driving charges avoid costly and risky criminal proceedings. Successful completion of the program results not only in dismissal of the criminal charge but also expungement of the arrest record, as if the matter never happened.
Pennsylvania's legislature authorized county criminal courts to offer these so-called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition programs, also known as ARD. That legislation recites in its introduction that the ARD diversion option focuses on the defendant's rehabilitation outside of court procedures. Northampton County's driving-under-the-influence court-diversion program is an ARD program. Other counties may have broader or narrower ARD programs.
Qualifying for Diversion
Northampton County's DUI-ARD program is generally available only to first-time offenders whose DUI violation did not involve serious injury to anyone. Qualifying offenders must also have a reasonably safe driving record. Importantly, to qualify for diversion into the program, the defendant must not plead guilty to the charge. Northampton County's DUI-ARD program involves pre-conviction, not post-conviction, diversion.
The first-time offender wishing to pursue diversion must waive otherwise-important legal rights like the right to jury trial and speedy trial. To qualify for diversion in Northampton County, the first-time offender must also complete a program application and evaluation, appear at a preliminary hearing and formal arraignment, and attend a screening and special ARD court. Completing the program also requires payment of fines and costs that depend, interestingly, on the offender's blood-alcohol level.
Why First-Time Offenders Need Counsel
You can imagine from the above descriptions why having experienced defense counsel is so important, not just to defend criminal charges in a court proceeding but even to qualify for and complete a diversion program. Qualifying for Northampton County's DUI-ARD program requires a clear, complete, correct, forthright, and timely program application--just the sort of task for skilled counsel.
Succeeding in defense of first-time charges is not only about getting into the right program. It also means getting the right treatment and other program terms, the things that make for authentic rehabilitation. Negotiating those terms is another skilled task with which an experienced criminal defense lawyer like Pennsylvania attorney Joseph D. Lento can assist. Negotiation can, above all, require respect and relationship, just the sort of value the Lento Law Firm brings to its premier clients.
Successful dismissal of the charges and expungement of arrest records also means completing the diversion program timely with all necessary documentation. Few things are as frustrating as doing the work but not getting the credit. An experienced defense lawyer like attorney Joseph D. Lento knows what documentation the courts require and how to get that documentation. Skilled counsel can be critical for the insight and accountability necessary to complete diversion and avoid a criminal conviction.
Get Help Now
Experienced and trustworthy Pennsylvania attorney Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm is an aggressive advocate when his clients need him to be so. Yet Mr. Lento also has the knowledge, experience, and professional relationships, and respect to help clients take appropriate advantage of Northampton County's special diversion program. First-time offenders charged in Northampton County deserve trustworthy and experienced legal counsel, whether the case's course involves court proceedings or diversion.
Too much is at stake for a first-time offender to handle the charge without skilled representation. Attorney Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm has many years of experience helping first-time offenders get charges reduced or dismissed, saving jobs, homes, reputation, and relationships. Receive your case evaluation from the Lento Law Firm by calling (888) 535-3686 or going online now.