There are 18 Magisterial District Courts in Berks County, PA. These courts are overseen by elected magisterial judges who serve six-year terms. If you received a summons to one of these magisterial courts, you may be confused as to what your next steps should be. Being summoned to court is a very stressful experience, and the best way that you can be prepared is by working with an attorney who has experience working within this part of the Pennsylvania court system.
By trusting and working with someone who has experience navigating the Magistrates' Court process, you'll be able to prepare for your case and present yourself in the best possible light when you appear before the judge.
What Happens at the Berks County Magisterial District Court?
Pennsylvania's court system is run by the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System. This system consists of seven tiers, the lowest of which is the Magisterial Court. Some of a magisterial judge's responsibilities include handling traffic cases, overseeing civil cases (with amounts of no more than $12,000), and minor criminal cases involving summary offenses. In addition to handling these types of low-level cases, magisterial judges also conduct preliminary hearings in both misdemeanor and felony criminal cases. With these cases, the judges decide if the case has enough evidence to continue forward or if the case should just be dismissed.
If Cases Move on From the Magistrates' Court, Where Do They Go?
If a judge determines that a case has merit and warrants a trial, they'll transfer it from the Magistrates' Court to the Court of Common Pleas. The Court of Common Pleas is a trial court that's the next step up from the Magistrate's court. It hears appeals sent up from the Magistrates' Court in addition to handling other cases like those regarding families and children.
I've Been Called to Appear in Front of the Berks County Magisterial District Court. What Happens Next?
Once you receive your summons from the magisterial court, you need to get serious. Even though the Magistrates' Court is technically on the lowest rung of the Pennsylvania Court System, it's not a court that you should underestimate. There could be serious consequences that come from decisions that are made here.
You need to make sure that you arrive at the court early on the day of the hearing so that you don't run the risk of missing your date. People who have missed their magisterial court date run the risk of being arrested. Your best bet to ensure that you put your best foot forward with your case is to hire an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney. Defense attorneys with Magistrates' Court experience are very familiar with this part of the justice system. They know the judges who are involved in the cases, they know what's to be expected from each type of case, and they're able to help prep you so that you'll be able to put your best foot forward on the day.
Once you meet with your defense attorney, give them all of the details and information about your case, even if you think that information is unimportant. Not having this information on your court date could harm your case.
Do I Have to Get an Attorney, or Can I Appear Without One?
Some people think that they don't need to get an attorney if they're heading to Magistrates' Court. They - incorrectly - reason that they're only going to be going into a lower court, so they assume that whatever matter they're dealing with must not be that serious.
While it's true that Magistrate's Court does not make the types of landmark legal decisions that other courts do, it is an extremely important step in the court system. While magisterial judges oversee minor cases like traffic cases and claims cases, they are also the first stop when it comes to more serious misdemeanors and felonies.
There's a reason that people say that no one should ever represent themselves in a court of law. In this case, there are so many nuances surrounding the Magisterial Court process. If you're not aware of them or how the system works, you could end up losing your case. Following are just a few more reasons that you should have an attorney by your side when you go to Magistrates' Court.
- You don't have experience handling the types of cases Magistrate judges oversee.
- You don't have any information about the judges who will be overseeing your case, making it difficult for you to prepare properly in advance of your appearance.
- You don't understand the legal wrangling the prosecution use, putting you in a position where you could end up losing your case on the smallest of issues.
When you're working with an experienced defense attorney, you're working with someone who has experience handling all of the above. You're working with someone who knows exactly the approach to take in order to prove your points. Your lawyer can take the pressure off of you so that you can focus on preparing yourself mentally for your big day in court.
What If I Just Plead Guilty?
No one likes to go to court, and most people will do anything to avoid or cut down the process if they can. You may think that you'll just go in, see the judge, plead guilty, and move on. People who attempt this assume that Magistrates' Court will be more trouble than it's worth. They mistakenly think that because the Magistrates' Court is a “lower” court, their case must not be a big deal. The problem with this line of thinking is that if you plead guilty, you could make things worse for yourself down the road. Just because Magistrates' Court is a lower court doesn't mean that the penalties it imposes are any less tough than those handed down by the Court of Common Pleas. Pleading guilty means that you now have a criminal conviction on your record. Even if you plead guilty to civil offenses, you can still face significant fines or even jail time. Having this information on your record could affect your future prospects
Never assume that you know what will happen in a court of law. Reaching out to and working with an experienced attorney can exponentially increase your odds of your case having a positive outcome.
What Will Happen at My Hearing at Magistrates' Court?
You'll arrive at your hearing with your lawyer if you have one. The prosecution and the complainant, and/or the arresting officer will be there as well. Magistrates' Courts don't have juries.
Once everyone has arrived, the other side will present its case against you. They may or may not present witnesses. If they do, your lawyer will have the opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses. This is another great reason that working with a lawyer may work to your benefit. An experienced lawyer will have the knowledge and know-how to ask the right questions so that your side can be presented in the best possible light.
Once the judge has heard everything, they'll then have to make a decision. Depending on the type of crime, they may decide that there's enough evidence against you for you to stand trial. If that's the case, they'll transfer your case to the Court of Common Pleas. There's also a chance that the judge may decide to send you to jail. If you have an experienced attorney representing you, you'll have someone who has years of experience making sure that their clients are able to present the best defense possible. If they decide that the charges against you aren't strong enough, they may decide to drop the case altogether.
What Is the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?
The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program is a program set up to allow people facing summary offenses like loitering, minor traffic crimes, and other similar offenses to completely avoid Magisterial Court by waiving their rights to a preliminary hearing and prosecution. With the program, they accept a guilty plea, go on probation, participate in community service, and pay fines. It's important to note that getting accepted into the ARD program is an extremely slow process, and it could still affect your life negatively in the future. By working with an experienced attorney, you may be able to instead get your charges reduced, or your case dismissed, creating a better long-term outcome.
Who Can I Call for Help When I Receive a Summons to Magistrate District Court in Berks County, PA?
The moment you receive your summons to appear in Magistrates' Court, you should reach out to an attorney who has experience with both the court and the type of charge that you're dealing with. The Lento Law Firm has years of experience representing people going through the Berks County Magisterial Courts. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team know these courts inside and out and know how to work with the judges and prosecution. Once you're on board, they'll work hard to make sure that you have the best defense possible. Call 888-535-3686 today to schedule an evaluation of your case. Your life is worth it.