Pennsylvania Criminal Defense FAQ

If you are facing a criminal charge in Pennsylvania, it can be overwhelming and scary. You probably have many questions about when you should talk to the police, whether you can enter a plea bargain, and what the possible penalties could be for a guilty conviction.

Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Frequently Asked Questions

 
  1. What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor, a Felony, and a Summary Offense?
  2. What are the penalties for crimes in Pennsylvania?
  3. Do I Have to Talk to the Police?
  4. Do I Have to Let the Police Search My House if They Ask?
  5. What's an Illegal Search?
  6. What's an Illegal Weapon in Pennsylvania?
  7. What Are the Stages of Pennsylvania's Criminal Judicial Process?
  8. Do I Need a Lawyer?

What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor, a Felony, and a Summary Offense?

In Pennsylvania, a misdemeanor offense is typically less serious than a felony. A summary offense is the equivalent of an ordinance violation. The law classifies crimes by degree based upon the serious nature of the crime and others' harm. First-degree crimes are the most serious.

Crime Classifications

The law determines the mandator minimum and maximum penalties according to the degree of the crime. The classifications include:

  • Murder
  • Felony (1st degree)
  • Felony (2nd degree)
  • Felony (3rd degree)
  • Misdemeanor (1st degree)
  • Misdemeanor (2nd degree)
  • Misdemeanor (3rd degree)
  • Ungraded misdemeanor (same as a 3rd-degree misdemeanor)
  • Summary Offenses

Pennsylvania law contains classifications for each crime, and each classification has minimum and maximum penalty guidelines. The court uses these guidelines to determine the penalty for a crime, including the Offense Gravity Score, Prior Record Score, any enhancements, and aggravating or mitigating circumstances.

Felony Crimes

Some examples of first-degree felony crimes include:

  • Murder
  • Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon
  • Theft of property worth $500,000 or more
  • Arson that endangers people

Examples of second-degree felonies include:

  • Sexual assault
  • Burglary (with no people on the premises)
  • Indecent assault
  • Theft of property worth between $100,000 and $500,000
  • Aggravated assault

Examples of third-degree felonies include:

  • Possession of child pornography
  • Possession with intent to distribute
  • Bribery
  • Some gun crimes
  • Theft of property worth between $2,000 and $100,000

Misdemeanor Crimes

Some examples of first-degree misdemeanor crimes include:

  • Terroristic threats
  • Simple assault
  • Stalking
  • Assault of a sports official
  • Multiple DUIs
  • Theft of property worth between $200 and $2,000

Some examples of second-degree misdemeanor crimes include:

  • Shoplifting
  • Bigamy
  • Strangulation
  • Impersonating a public servant
  • Theft of property worth between $50 and $200

Some examples of third-degree misdemeanor crimes include:

  • Railroad vandalism
  • Open lewdness
  • Possession of marijuana
  • Theft of property worth less than $50
  • Loitering and prowling at night

Summary Offenses

Some examples of summary offenses in Pennsylvania include:

  • Loitering
  • Harassment
  • Underage drinking
  • Disorderly conduct

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What are the penalties for crimes in Pennsylvania?

Degree

Penalty

Fine

Murder

   

1st Degree Murder

Life in prison, death

Up to $50,000

2nd Degree Murder

Life in prison

Up to $50,000

3rd Degree Murder

Up to 40 years in prison

Up to $50,000

Felonies

   

1st Degree Felony

10 to 20 years in prison

Up to $25,000

2nd Degree Felony

5 to 10 years in prison

Up to $25,000

3rd Degree Felony

2.5 to 7 years in prison

Up to $15,000

Misdemeanors

   

1st Degree Misdemeanor

2.5 to 5 years in prison

Up to $10,000

2nd Degree Misdemeanor

1 to 2 years in prison

Up to $5,000

3rd Degree Misdemeanor

6 months to 1 year in prison

Up to $2,500

Summary Offenses

90 days in jail

Up to $300

In addition to the penalties listed above, a felony conviction can have consequences for the rest of your life. Even after completing your sentence and paying fines, you will be a convicted felon for the rest of your life:

  • You can no longer run for public office;
  • While in prison, you can't vote;
  • You can't own or possess a firearm if convicted of a violent crime;
  • You can't serve on a jury;
  • You can't get college financial aid;
  • You can't obtain government benefits.

Depending on your crime, you may also find it difficult to:

  • Find a job;
  • Join the military;
  • Enter certain professions like law enforcement or those requiring professional licensing and certifications;
  • Obtain a lease or mortgage; and
  • Obtain a security clearance.

While the penalties for misdemeanors and summary offenses are less severe, you can still face mandatory jail time and significant financial penalties. Moreover, you will have a criminal record, and you may have to disclose it to employers or licensing boards in certain professions.

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Do I Have to Talk to the Police?

No, you do not have to talk to the police. You always have the right to remain silent. It may feel natural to cooperate to help the police out, especially if you know you didn't do anything wrong. But it's far too easy for you to give information to the police that will incriminate you or that law enforcement officers can use to prosecute you for a crime you didn't commit.

If you do speak with the police, here are some things to remember:

  • They will use what you say against you;
  • The police will selectively testify about your responses, leaving out anything you say that exonerates you and including anything that might incriminate you;
  • You can't typically talk your way out of being arrested;
  • The police are trained interrogators who know how to get confessions or incriminating information. Don't think you can outsmart them;
  • Don't ever confess because you're tired and want to leave;
  • Admitting you are guilty will never help you;
  • If you are guilty, don't help the police prove it.

There are some encounters where police don't need a warrant:

    • Police can approach you and ask if you're willing to answer some questions. They don't need a warrant for this. But, you can always say no and leave.
    • If the police can stop and frisk you if they can “point to specific articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” This pat-down is not supposed to be a search for evidence, but a reasonable search for weapons to protect the officer if they believe they're dealing with someone armed and dangerous.

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Do I Have to Let the Police Search My House if They Ask?

No, you don't. The fourth amendment to the US Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. If you give the police permission to search your home, it may be a valid search even without a warrant. If you say no and they search your home anyway, it may be an illegal search, and the court can toss out any evidence they discover illegally.

To obtain a warrant, the police must appear before a judge and:

  • Present sufficient grounds to justify the search; and
  • Establish that there is probable cause to believe that there is illegal property, property obtained illegally, or property used in connection with illegal activity;

The judge will then determine whether there are sufficient grounds to grant a search warrant and identify specific places and people to be searched.

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What's an Illegal Search?

We often hear people say that someone “got off on a technicality.” In actuality, that means that police failed to follow the rules established to protect your civil rights. If law enforcement officers fail to follow the procedures needed to obtain a search warrant, searching or seizing evidence may be illegal. However, there are situations where the police don't need a warrant. If a court rules a search was illegal, any evidence seized may also be unlawful. If the search led to additional evidence, that evidence may be unlawful as well and deemed to be “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Illegal searches can include:

  • Improper search of any enclosed areas or trunk of a vehicle without a warrant. This rule is typically valid even if you give consent unless the police had sufficient evidence to ask.
  • An intrusive search of a person's body, pockets, purse, or wallet without a warrant; or
  • A home search without a warrant that doesn't meet the requirements for a warrantless search.

Warrantless Search

The police can perform a warrantless search if:

  • They find evidence in a place with no expectation of privacy. For example, if the police find evidence discovered in trash put out at the curb, they don't need a warrant.
  • Evidence is in “plain view.” For example, if a police officer can see drugs out on your car dashboard, they don't need a warrant.
  • A layperson, who is not a law enforcement agent, seizes evidence. For example, your neighbor takes a fake $20 from a stack on your kitchen counter and gives it to the police; the police don't need a warrant to use that $20 as evidence.
  • It is a search incident to an arrest.
  • You consent to the search.
  • The police perform the search as part of an emergency or while in hot pursuit. For example, if the police see a bleeding person on the floor of your living room, they can enter to render aid. If they find a gun you used to shoot the person as part of that, they don't need a warrant.

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What's an Illegal Weapon in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania law prohibits ownership or possession of certain “offensive weapons.” See 18 Pa. CSA § 908. “Offensive weapons” is defined rather broadly and includes, “Any bomb, grenade, machine gun, sawed-off shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches, firearm specially made or specially adapted for concealment or silent discharge, any blackjack, sandbag, metal knuckles, dagger, knife, razor or cutting instrument, the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise, any stun gun, stun baton, taser or other electronic or electric weapon or other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose.” There are exceptions for law enforcement agents, people in the military, and liquor control board agents.

Pennsylvania law also prohibits certain people from owning or possessing weapons, including:

  • Individuals convicted of a violent crime like homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, or kidnapping;
  • Individuals convicted of three DUIs in five years;
  • Individuals convicted of being a drug addict or habitual drunkard;
  • Undocumented immigrants;
  • Fugitives;
  • Individuals the court has declared mentally ill; and
  • Individuals under a protection from abuse order.

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What Are the Stages of Pennsylvania's Criminal Judicial Process?

In Pennsylvania, most criminal cases will follow the same basic process.

Criminal Complaint

Typically, a law enforcement officer will file a criminal complaint against the alleged offender. If the police decline to file a complaint, the alleged victim can file a private complaint, but the district attorney must approve private complaints before charges can proceed. The complaint will lay out the charges against the defendant and a summary describing the incident leading to the charges.

Warrant

After the police file a complaint, a judge may issue a warrant for the defendant's arrest. If a defendant fails to appear for a hearing, a judge may also issue an arrest warrant.

Preliminary Arraignment

At the preliminary arraignment, the defendant appears before a judge where the court notifies them of the charges against them and their rights. The court will schedule a preliminary hearing ten days from the date of the preliminary arraignment. The court will then determine bail, release the defendant on their own recognizance, or detain the defendant without bail.

Formal Arraignment

During a formal arraignment, the court will formally charge the defendant and the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, a sentencing hearing will follow. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the court will schedule the case for trial. All parties must file their preliminary motions within 30 days of the formal arraignment.

Trial

If the defendant pleads not guilty, they will move on to trial. In Pennsylvania, juries of 12 citizens hear trials, but defendants may also request a bench trial where only a judge decides the verdict. The district attorney serves as a prosecutor and presents evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense attorney will refute the prosecutor's evidence and present the defendant's evidence. Both sides have the opportunity to refute the other's evidence and witnesses.

For a trial by jury, all 12 jurors must come to a unanimous verdict. If they can't, the judge may declare a mistrial and order a new trial with a new jury. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge will schedule a sentencing hearing for 14 to 90 days later.

Sentencing

During the sentencing hearing, a judge will listen to both the prosecutor and the defense's arguments and recommendations. The judge will then decide the sentence based on statutory penalties and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

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Do I Need a Lawyer?

Whenever you face a criminal charge, you are entitled to legal representation. While you certainly can try to defend yourself, a criminal conviction is a serious matter. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands Pennsylvania criminal procedure and can skillfully negotiate and advocate on your behalf. You don't have to go through this alone. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of experience defending Pennsylvanians in criminal matters and also those who reside out of state and find themselves charged with crimes in Pennsylvania.  He can help. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-535-3686 or contact them online.

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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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