If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, and it's your first foray into the criminal justice system, you are likely experiencing fear and anxiety. And you have lots of questions--What does the process look like? What might the potential consequences be? How will it affect your career, business, or family life? What about your assets? Although the impact can be life-altering, the good news is, you don't have to face a first-time offense alone. You're a leader in your community who's ended up on the wrong side of the law, and an experienced attorney can assist you.
When you research criminal defense lawyers, you'll want to evaluate their track record, as well as their involvement in the legal community. An experienced criminal defense attorney will understand how to navigate the complex legal system, how to connect you with potential first-time offender programs, and how to best formulate a defense strategy so that you can receive the best possible outcome. To get you started, we've compiled a basic overview that you can dive into.
Collateral Consequences For A First-Time Offender
As a professional, your reputation is of the utmost importance. Perhaps people in your community look to you for guidance or for leadership. Maybe you serve on a board or two of an organization. If you're on the board of a company, do you know what's in the by-laws and how a criminal charge might impede your ability to serve? A criminal conviction, even once, could directly impact your life, even though the ramifications vary greatly, depending on the crime.
For example, if you are a licensed professional who practices medicine, nursing, law, accounting, you could potentially face restrictions on or revocation of your license. Licensed professionals almost always have an affirmative duty to report an arrest or criminal charges, and one's failure to do so can lead to additional potential negative consequences imposed by the applicable licensing body.
Maybe you aren't a licensed professional, but your job requires you to travel. Some open cases may affect your ability to travel internationally, even causing your passport to be on hold. Your livelihood could be at stake.
Your personal life may be affected as well. If you are in the middle of a custody hearing, a criminal charge could impact your ability to see and spend time with your children. Or perhaps you already have a custody agreement with your ex-wife. Depending on the charge, a judge could decide to adjust your custody or alimony agreements.
Finally, if you are a gun owner, certain convictions might impact your ability to bear firearms. This is not an exhaustive list of collateral consequences, but it does offer an overview of some of the impact of a criminal conviction beyond fines and sentencing.
Possible Types Of Criminal Offenses
There is a range of potential types of criminal offenses, especially for a first time offender. The type of alleged crime determines the seriousness of the charge, as well as the potential fines or sentencing. Here are some of the most common types of criminal offenses that might impact a professional, along with an overview of potential sentences and fines. We're going to look at four main categories: assault charges, white-collar charges, DUI charges, and drug-related charges.
Assault Charges and Domestic Violence
Assault Charges fall under two main categories: simple assault and aggravated assault. Of the two, aggravated assault is the more serious and considered a felony offense. According to the 2017 Crime Justice Trend Reports, “Pennsylvania ranked high in aggravated assault arrest rates when compared to its surrounding states.” So what is included under aggravated assault and simple assault?
18 Pa.C.S. § 2701 outlines the definition of simple assault as when a person:
“(1) attempts to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another; (2) negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; (3) attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury; or (4) conceals or attempts to conceal a hypodermic needle on his person and intentionally or knowingly penetrates a law enforcement officer or an officer or an employee of a correctional institution, county jail or prison, detention facility or mental hospital during the course of an arrest or any search of the person.”
The charges for simple assault can be a third, second, or first-degree misdemeanor, dependent on the circumstances; fines and sentences for these range from up to $2000 in fines and one year in prison to up to $10,000 and five years in prison. Clearly, fines and sentences can be severe. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to craft a defense for your situation, in part, depending on which statute applies to your case. For example, in (1), it states, “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.” If there is evidence that the alleged assault was unintentional, that could possibly weaken the prosecution's case.
Aggravated assault is a much more serious offense, and the fines and sentences mirror its severity. Second-degree aggravated assault has up to $25,000 in fines and 10 years in prison. First-degree aggravated assault carries up to 20 years in prison and the same amount for potential fines.
The potential causes of an alleged aggravated assault charge vary widely. One component is if the incident involves a public servant who is acting in their official capacity (such as a police officer or firefighter). This automatically qualifies the assault as aggravated rather than simple. The extensive legislation is listed here at 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702.
Although assault is a serious charge, it is even more serious when it involves a family member in your household. Our most heated arguments can occur with those we love the most, and if an instance concerns a family member, it could qualify as domestic violence. Pennsylvania aggressively pursues domestic violence convictions, and so it's critical that you have an attorney who can protect your interests, both financial and personal.
White Collar Crimes
White-collar crimes are often financially motivated crimes that are non-violent in nature in contrast to some of the other listed charges. It would be hard to delineate all of the different potential white-collar crimes; however, here is a short (and incomplete) list of some of the most common and relevant Pennsylvania legislation. Often, white-collar crimes fall under federal law, as well.
- Fraud: there are many types, but one example is Insurance Fraud
- Money Laundering: pertinent Pennsylvania statutes
- Identity theft: defined for Pennsylvania here
- Forgery as outlined by the Pennsylvania legislature
- Cyber Crimes: this often involves federal, state, and local cooperation, and covers a vast range of offenses. Consequently, there's an entire Chapter in the state legislation covering it.
Often, with white-collar crimes, the penalties vary based on factors such as the amount of money involved and the severity of the offense. Many white-collar crimes fall into felony status and whether it is first, second, or third-degree depends on extenuating circumstances. For example, some felony charges, even if it is the first offense, might be third-degree felonies with up to 7 years in prison. Others may fall under the classification of a second-degree felony and carry up to 10 years in prison.
Some of these white-collar crimes may result in assets, such as hedge funds or trusts, being seized or frozen. It's important to consult with an attorney who can help protect all the wealth you've worked so hard to build.
Penalties for a first time DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) differ, depending on the driver's level of impairment. Although you're always careful at the corporate holiday party, sometimes you may end up driving with a higher BAC than you expected. Pennsylvania has three categories for impairment. They are:
- .10%-.159% (including minors)
- .16% and higher (includes drugged driving and refusing a breathalyzer)
So, what are the actual penalties for these levels?
For a First DUI, general impairment, the offense level is that of an ungraded misdemeanor. The sentence can be for up to six months of probation, and the fine may be $300. The judge might also order treatment, which often entails participating in an alcohol safety school.
Next is the First DUI, High BAC. The offense level is the same, as is the potential for ordered treatment, however, the sentence could be for anywhere from 48 hours to six months in jail, as well as potential license suspension for a year, and fines ranging from $500-$5000.
Finally, for First DUI, Highest BAC, the offense level is again an ungraded misdemeanor, however, the fines can range from $500-$5000, the license may be suspended for a year (12 months), and the sentence could range from 72 hours (three days) to six months in jail.
Drug Crime Charges
Drug possession charges are listed at Title 18 of the Statutes of Pennsylvania Section 7508. The penalties for the various charges are incredibly diverse, even for first-time offenses. They rely on what type of drug an individual possessed and the amount of the drug they had in their possession. For example, the penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana (cannabis) are significantly less severe than the penalty for less than one gram of heroin. One will result in up to $500 in fines, up to thirty days in prison, and an automatic six-month suspension of a driver's license—the other results in up to one year in jail and up to $5000 in fines.
Most first-time offenses of possession are classified as misdemeanors, barring complications such as possession with intent to distribute. Allegations of drug use can damage your reputation, both personally and professionally. Depending on your circumstances, you may qualify for the ARD program, which we describe further below.
The Accelerated Rehabilitation Diversion (ARD) program is a Pennsylvania program that is available to non-violent, first-time offenders. The program was approved by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and it provides a twofold benefit. First, it saves the state time and money (from the cost of a trial), and second, it provides rehabilitation for the offender.
In order to participate in the program, an individual must submit an application in writing to the DA (district attorney) within 30 days of their preliminary hearing. The DA must approve an individual to participate in the program. This means that even if someone qualifies for ARD, it still is up to the discretion of the DA.
As a participant in ARD, an individual agrees to stipulations as set out in their agreement. This might include community service, drug and alcohol rehab treatment, or restitution. For a set period of time, no more than two years, the person is essentially on probation. Once the program is complete, a defendant may petition the court to have the original charges dismissed and the case expunged (sealed from public record). If the individual does not complete the program, then the charges will be returned to the court docket. Additionally, if someone participates in ARD, but then repeats the same offense, the offense will be treated as a second offense if convicted.
Court Process in PA
If it's your first time being arrested in Pennsylvania, the court process can be overwhelming. In almost all Pennsylvania counties, within 72 hours (three days) of your arrest, you'll have your preliminary arraignment at the District Court where you are being charged. Because there are important procedural differences in the criminal process in Philadelphia County, the preliminary arraignment will take place within approximately 12 - 16 hours after your surrender or arrest.
What happens then? The judge will read the charges, set your bail, and make sure that you understand your right to an attorney. When bail is being set, several factors will impact the judge's decision. If there's concern that you might be a flight risk, then the bail will most likely be set at a high amount. Sometimes, if the judge assesses that you are a low risk, you might even be released on your own recognizance (ROR).
The next step after this is the preliminary hearing, which usually occurs between three and ten days after the preliminary arraignment. The preliminary hearing is when the judge will decide whether or not the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to draw a connection between you and the alleged crime. (After the preliminary arraignment in Philadelphia County, the case will be listed for a preliminary hearing if there are any felony charges or will be scheduled for a Municipal Court arraignment if the case involves misdemeanors only.) At this point, an attorney may also enter into plea bargaining on your behalf with the district attorney.
Whether proceeding to trial or if you are going to move forward without taking a plea bargain, then the next stage is a formal arraignment. A formal arraignment is held in the Court of Common Pleas and is where you will officially plea guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
At this point, if the case is not resolved by non-trial disposition, your case will go to trial. Depending on the circumstances, it may be trial by jury or trial by judge. If you've entered a not guilty plea at the formal arraignment, your attorney will have deadlines for any pretrial motions (usually within 30 days).
Once your attorney and the district attorney present their evidence and the closing arguments occur, it is time for the outcome of the case and (possibly) sentencing.
In some cases, it is possible to file an appeal to a higher court after the sentencing. Usually, an appeal goes first to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and then to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A seasoned attorney will understand how to best approach an appeal, if necessary.
Best Pennsylvania Attorney for First-Time Offenders
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of experience fighting on behalf of first-time offenders. He understands what options are available to you as a first-time offender in Pennsylvania, as well as what it takes to defeat your charges in court. You want and deserve to have the best attorney possible to help protect your assets and your reputation. You don't have to face this challenge alone, but it's important to act sooner rather than later. To find out how the Lento Law Firm can help with your case as a Pennsylvania first-time offender, call 888-535-3686 today and schedule a consultation.