First Time Offenders – Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Being arrested is scary. You may not be quite sure what's happening, and it all passes in a blur. But once the fog clears, you must understand what will happen after your arrest up to your possible trial. Criminal matters are complex, for both felonies and misdemeanors, making it essential that you have experienced legal representation.

The Magisterial District Judge

After the police arrest and charge you, you'll appear before a Magisterial District Judge, sometimes called a District Judge or MDJ. You'll appear before the MDJ for both your preliminary arraignment and your preliminary hearing.

  1. Preliminary Arraignment

At your preliminary arraignment, the MDJ will ensure that you understand the charges against you, your rights, and your right to counsel. The MDJ will also consider whether bail is appropriate. In determining bail, the judge will look at your ties to the local community, whether you have any prior arrests, and your work or employment history to determine whether you might be a flight risk.

If the court determines that you may post bail, you must agree to appear at all future hearings. If you fail to appear, you will forfeit your bail, and the court will issue a warrant for your arrest. If you have an attorney with you for your preliminary arraignment, it increases the chance that you will receive the opportunity to post bail and that the bail will be a reasonable amount. A skilled defense attorney can also argue that the court releases you on your own recognizance by presenting your ties to the community and membership in civil or religious organizations. They may also agree to surrender your passport or ask for electronic monitoring.

  1. Preliminary Hearing

At the preliminary hearing, the MDJ will listen to the prosecution's evidence and determine whether there is enough evidence to hold your case over for trial. At this hearing, the district attorney must present a “prima facie case.” This standard requires the court to review:

  • Whether there was probable cause to believe someone committed a crime,
  • Whether there is probable cause to believe that you committed the crime.

The standard for this hearing won't be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecution just needs to show probable cause. To show this, the district attorney will introduce witnesses and present evidence. Because this isn't a full trial, you won't be able to introduce witnesses, challenge a witness's identification, or argue to suppress evidence. Your attorney can, however, cross-examine witnesses, including police officers.

While you can waive a pretrial hearing, it's a good opportunity to hear the prosecution's case, evaluate the Commonwealth's case against you, and see the witnesses they might produce at trial. If a court reporter records the hearing, your attorney can use this testimony to impeach the witness if they attempt to testify to something different at trial.

This hearing is also a good opportunity for your attorney to negotiate a reduced or summary sentence or a plea bargain. For example, in a case involving drug possession, the defense attorney may convince the judge to drop charges in exchange for the defendant's participation in a drug rehabilitation program. Or your attorney may be able to negotiate a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

Both the preliminary arraignment and hearing will typically occur in the MDJ’s office or at the courthouse downtown in Lancaster. The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure require that you receive a preliminary arraignment; however, you may not have a preliminary hearing if you enter a diversionary program.

The Court of Common Pleas

After your preliminary hearing with the MDJ, your case will move to the criminal trial court, the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.

  1. Arraignment

Before your formal arraignment, the prosecution will file charges with a “Criminal Information.” The document states the charges and the factual basis for the charges. At your formal arraignment, the court will ensure that you understand the Criminal Information and ask you to plead guilty or not guilty. You and your attorney will also receive important deadlines for the case, including when you must file discovery motions and the deadline to file any pretrial motions.

  1. Pretrial Hearings

You may have several pretrial hearings before your trial, sometimes called the “Call of the List.” A pretrial hearing can be a status conference where the parties can update the judge on the case's progress. Or it can be an additional hearing to inform the judge if a plea bargain is in the works, make discovery requests, inform the judge of discovery requests that are still outstanding, and resolve evidentiary issues or other pretrial matters before the trial date. If the parties can make a deal, they may schedule a guilty plea hearing or admission into a diversionary program like the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program (ARD).

  1. Trial

Your trial will typically follow a predictable pattern. If you elect to have a jury trial, the court will ensure that a jury panel is available on the day your trial begins.

  • Jury Selection: Jury selection typically takes about half a day, depending on the trial. Both parties select the jury and have the opportunity to ask prospective jurors if they have any conflicts of interest or whether they can be impartial. Each side also has an equal number of peremptory challenges that allow them to strike a potential juror they feel can't be impartial.
  • Opening Statements: After the court impanels the jury, the parties each give opening statements. The opening statement presents your case and what 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 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 completes the presentation of its case, they will give closing arguments. Both attorneys review what they believe the facts show and try to persuade the jury. It is the Commonwealth's burden to prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; your attorney only has to put reasonable doubt in the jury's minds.
  • 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 guilty or not guilty verdict. Their verdict must be unanimous.
  1. Post-trial

If the jury found you not guilty, the court will release you after some processing. If the jury found you guilty, you will move to sentencing. In Pennsylvania, the judge will determine your sentence based on statutory guidelines. You have the right to appeal the verdict.

Lancaster County Diversionary Programs

In Lancaster County, we have several diversionary programs intended to help first-time offenders obtain counseling, substance abuse treatment, supervision, and probation as an alternative to incarceration. The most common of these programs is the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program (ARD). ARD is an alternative program approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for first-time offenders.

An ARD captain oversees the ARD program and reviews criminal cases for potential admission. In Lancaster County, the district attorney generally has discretion over whether to admit someone to the ARD program. The ARD program allows prompt disposition of charges, eliminating expensive and lengthy trials and conserving court and county resources. The hope is to remove first-time offenders who are open to treatment and rehabilitation from the criminal justice system.

About 90% of ARD cases in Pennsylvania involve first-time offenders arrested for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. For DUI ARD applicants, you must apply to the program within 30 days of the district judge signing the charging documents. For non-DUI ARD applicants, there is no deadline to apply.

To be accepted into the ARD program, you must waive your right to a preliminary hearing and a formal arraignment. If accepted, the court will place you on probation and order that you pay fines and complete community service. After completing the ARD program, you can petition the court to expunge your criminal record.

Additional diversionary programs in Lancaster County available to first-time offenders include:

  • Drug Court: Drug court is for defendants who may have committed a crime because of drug use. The program occurs in four 90-day phases that include supervised probation, weekly drug tests, and drug rehabilitation.
  • Mental Health Court: Mental health court is only available for those defendants that may have committed a crime because of mental illness. Defendants must have a diagnosed mental illness. The program allows for supervised probation, medication management, counseling or therapy, and drug or alcohol treatment if needed.
  • Veterans Court: Veterans court is available for U.S. veterans receiving VA services through the federal or state Veterans Affairs programs. The court assigns defendants a veteran mentor and typically requires additional therapy or drug treatment.

Hire a Skilled Lancaster Criminal Defense Attorney

If you're facing a first-time offense in Lancaster County, you shouldn't try to do this alone. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney can ensure you get the best possible outcome and avoid the lasting impact that a criminal conviction can have on your life.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a skilled criminal defense attorney who has represented countless clients through the criminal justice system, helping many obtain dismissals or reduced charges. He can help you too. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 for a consultation to discuss your options, or contact us online.

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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