If you've received a summons to appear in one of the 20 Magisterial District Courts in Bucks County, PA, you may be concerned about what it means for you and what to do next. Does this mean I have a criminal record? Is there a jury trial? Do I need an attorney? Knowledge is power, so this page is intended to answer some of the most pressing questions we get at the Lento Law Firm regarding the Bucks County Magisterial Courts. This information should provide context so you can respond calmly and confidently if you are ticketed, arrested, or summoned to one of these courts.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
With more than 500 locations spread across the state of Pennsylvania, Magisterial District Courts are considered the lowest tier in the Pennsylvania court system. Each court is presided over by a Magisterial District Judge who is elected by the people to a six-year term.
The Magisterial District Courts deal mainly with low-level summary offenses (e.g., harassment, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, public drunkenness, etc.) as well as traffic tickets and similar municipal code violations. These courts also handle minor disagreements like landlord-tenant disputes and civil suits of $12,000 or less. Finally, the Magisterial Courts are the “first stop” for misdemeanors and felony offenses, hosting the preliminary hearings and arraignments before these cases go to the Court of Common Pleas for trial.
What are the Differences between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
Magisterial Courts are considered “minor courts” to deal with small claims and lesser municipal offenses. There are no jury trials in these courts; both sides deal directly with the presiding Magisterial District Judge who renders decisions. By contrast, the Court of Common Pleas is a higher court where jury trials and larger civil suits take place.
If you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, you may encounter both the Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas. The Magisterial Court is where preliminary hearings and arraignment take place before heading to the Court of Common Pleas for trial. If you and your attorney can arrange for dismissal of charges or a plea deal, you may be able to resolve the case in the Magisterial District Court without going to trial.
I've Been Summoned to Appear in Bucks County Magisterial District Court. What Happens Now?
Upon first receiving the summons, you should note the date and time when you are scheduled to appear, and make sure to appear on that date and time. Failure to do so could result in a warrant being issued for your arrest. In addition, prior to your court date, make sure you reach out to an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney for an evaluation of your case. Hiring an attorney can greatly improve your chances of the best possible outcome.
Do I Need Really Need an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
While you have the right to represent yourself in Magisterial Court, you run a huge risk by doing so—even with the most minor of offenses. Most people don't fully understand how the court systems work or how to conduct themselves in a way that works to their advantage—and this lack of experience works against them. By choosing to represent yourself, you greatly increase your chances of harsher penalties, higher fines and even jail time—all things that might be avoided with a skilled defense attorney in your corner.
What Happens If I Just Plead Guilty in Magisterial District Court?
With low-level summary offenses, you might be tempted just to plead guilty in Magisterial District Court and take the proverbial “slap on the wrist” just to simplify matters—even if you believe you are innocent. Unfortunately, this choice can come back to haunt you for years to come. Although it's a “minor court,” being convicted even of a summary offense can cost you fines, probation, and even jail time—not to mention the creation of a criminal record that can affect your ability to work in certain jobs or live in certain places. Whether or not you plan to plead guilty, hiring a Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer with specific experience in Bucks County Magisterial Court cases can improve your chances for a more positive outcome. The attorney can advise you on what's at stake, provide you with options, and even negotiate on your behalf to have some or all of the charges reduced or dismissed.
I Was Arrested for the First Time. Do I Now Have a Criminal Record?
Not yet. Arrests don't become part of your criminal record unless you plead guilty or are convicted (although the case and charges will appear on the Pennsylvania public court dockets until removed through an expungement or record sealing process as applicable and at the applicable time). If your attorney can show good reason to dismiss the charges, you won't have a record at all, and certainly not a conviction (at least for purposes of criminal background checks through the Pennsylvania State Police).
What Is a Preliminary Arraignment?
A preliminary arraignment usually takes place in Magisterial District Court with three days of your arrest. This is not considered a “formal arraignment” as Magisterial Courts are not courts of record. At the preliminary arraignment, the Magisterial Judge will read the charges against you, set bail, if necessary, and schedule your preliminary hearing. You will not enter a plea at this time. If your case is sent to the Court of Common Pleas, you will have a formal arraignment at that time where you will plead to the charges.
What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing in Magisterial Court?
Preliminary hearings are held in the case of misdemeanors and felony charges for the Magisterial District Judge to determine whether your case should officially go to trial. At the hearing, you'll appear with your attorney in front the judge, along with the prosecutors and the officer who arrested you. The prosecutors will present evidence and may call witnesses. Then your attorney can cross-examine any witnesses and present evidence in your defense. At this point, the judge makes a decision based on the evidence presented. If he/she deems there is not sufficient evidence against you, the charges will be dismissed and the matter is settled. If the judge decides the evidence is sufficient for trial, he/she will bind the case over to the Court of Common Pleas.
Who Do I Call if I am Summoned to Magisterial District Court in Bucks County, PA?
Your first line of defense when summoned to Magisterial Court is to call a skilled criminal defense attorney, preferably one with specific experience in Bucks County Magisterial Courts. The Lento Law Firm has a long track record of success in defending Pennsylvania clients at the Magisterial Court level, and Joseph D. Lento's expertise gives you the best hope for a positive outcome. Call 888-535-3686 to learn more.