If you have received a notification that you must appear before a Magisterial District Court in Centre County, you might feel confused, nervous, and unsure of what happens next. There are 19 Magisterial District Courts in Centre County an elected magisterial judge oversees each one. When you appear for a hearing in one of these courts, you should know what to expect and some of your options. At Lento Law Firm, we want to help ease your mind and prepare you for a magisterial district court appearance, so we answered the most commonly asked questions about these courts in this guide.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
Pennsylvania's judicial system has several tiers. The lowest tier of the state's court system, where most first-time offenders end up, is the Magisterial District Court. Judges in these courts rule on matters such as:
- Traffic citations
- Minor criminal cases
- Civil lawsuits that consist of less than $12,000 in question
The Magisterial District Court is also where preliminary hearings and indictments for more serious matters like misdemeanors and felonies are held, before being sent up to the Court of Common Pleas.
What's the Difference: Magisterial District Court vs. the Court of Common Pleas?
In Pennsylvania, Magisterial District Courts oversee matters where the conviction is typically a fine, not jail time. There is also no public record of cases heard in these courts, unless specifically requested. Some examples of the types of cases heard at Magisterial District Courts are:
- Small claims
- Minor lawsuits
- Harassment citations
- Low-level shoplifting citations
On the other hand, the Court of Common Pleas in Centre County is a trial court where juries decide whether a defendant is guilty. These courts hear criminal cases and higher-stakes civil cases.
One thing to keep in mind is that although Centre County's Magisterial District Courts don't typically publish court reporters' records of the hearings, the record still exists. The magistrate records everything into the Pennsylvania public court docket, which the state police and other law enforcement agencies can access. These agencies also keep copies of these records.
What Happens If You Get Summoned to Appear in Centre County Magisterial District Court?
After learning that you've been summoned to Centre County's Magisterial District Court, the first thing you should do is not panic. Then, keep these tips in mind:
- Note the date and time specified for your hearing. Write it down, put it in your calendar, or set a reminder.
- Show up a few minutes earlier than the time stated. If you miss your court appearance, the court can put out a warrant for your arrest.
- Contact an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney. A lawyer can meet with you to go over your case and review the facts. They'll start building a defense that can help mitigate any adverse effects.
Do You Need an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
Technically, you do not need an attorney for Magisterial Court. In most courts across the country, in fact, you don't need an attorney. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to criminal defendants to have someone work diligently on their behalf and construct a solid defense, but they're not required to have a lawyer. The judge may rule the defendant of sound mind and therefore able to represent themselves pro se (without counsel). For civil suits, there isn't always a guarantee of legal counsel. For this reason, civil defendants may find it easier to represent themselves without the magistrate intervening.
Although you are not required to have legal representation for the Centre County Magisterial District Court, it is highly recommended that you do. An attorney has the training and experience to defend your case more effectively than you do. They will have had dealings with the court and Magisterial District judges and know when to interject during the hearing or how to speak with other attorneys. There's even a greater chance of getting your charges reduced or dismissed with a skilled attorney.
If you represent yourself, however, you may not know when to interject during the hearing, how to notify witnesses, or ask appropriate questions of witnesses. If you go into your hearing without knowing what to do, you could end up with hefty fines or even jail time for a simple mistake.
Can't You Just Plead Guilty and Get It Over With?
If your first thought after receiving your summons to Magisterial District Court is to simply plead guilty, then calling an attorney should be your next move. This may be a “minor” court, but don't be fooled into thinking that the penalties will be less severe than the Court of Common Pleas. There are long-term effects that may not cause you any trouble now but will be detrimental to you later in life.
When you plead guilty, you are knowingly creating a conviction against yourself. That conviction still gets recorded in your permanent criminal record. Even convictions for civil offenses such as traffic violations can lead to heavy fines or jail time. With convictions on your record, you may also struggle to get hired for a new job, work with children or seniors as your occupation, or take up residence where you like.
To improve the chances that you avoid these penalties, you should work with an attorney experienced with the Magisterial District Court who can offer you the necessary guidance.
How Will Being Arrested Affect Your Criminal Record?
An arrest only appears on your criminal record if you plead guilty or are convicted. If your attorney can get the charges against you dismissed, your arrest won't appear on your criminal record at all. It's important to do what you can to avoid having an arrest on your record because it's public. All anyone has to do to find your criminal record is search by your full name.
Although Pennsylvania has started implementing changes concerning automatic record sealing that does provide some relief to people with minor convictions on their records, you should still be cautious. If you have any concerns about anyone finding the record of your arrest—especially concerning educational, career, and professional licensing opportunities—you should hire a qualified defense attorney. A lawyer can help guide you through the process, offer advice, and work with you to minimize any potential consequences related to the charges.
Note that record sealing is not the same as expungement. If you are eligible, you should seek expungement rather than record sealing. Your attorney can help you determine which option is best for you and help you go about doing it.
What Should You Expect at the Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate Court?
The following people will be present at your preliminary hearing:
- Your attorney
- The prosecution
- The arresting officer or complainant
- The judge
The preliminary hearing at Magisterial District Court is not a trial, so there will be no jury. During the hearing, the prosecution will present their evidence against you, and then your attorney will present evidence in your defense. It's possible the prosecution will present witnesses, and if so, your attorney may cross-examine them. You will almost certainly not be able to testify yourself at the hearing.
You can think of the preliminary hearing as a sort of trial before the trial. The hearing happens to help the Centre County Magistrate decide if there is enough evidence to compel you to stand trial. The Magistrate may also consider whether to send your case to the Court of Common Pleas. However, the Magistrate can drop the charges altogether if they decide there isn't enough evidence to make you stand trial, and the matter ends.
Are You Eligible for the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?
Pennsylvania has a program for first-time offenders with no prior convictions called the Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD). This program lets you waive your right to a preliminary hearing and prosecution—but you effectively accept a guilty plea. If you participate in the ARD program, you usually have to adhere to requirements set by the District Attorney's office. These requirements could include probation, fines, and community service.
The ARD program can still have an impact on your future, and it's not the best option for everyone. If you are charged with a summary offense such as loitering or shoplifting, and you're hoping that ARD will prevent you from having a criminal record, you may have to reconsider. Your attorney may be able to negotiate a better outcome for you at the preliminary hearing level, so you don't have to go through the sometimes long and grueling ARD process.
Who to Call If You Are Summoned to Magistrate District Court in Centre County, PA
When you receive a summons to Centre County's Magisterial District Court, you should contact an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible. At Lento Law Firm, we have represented clients in Magisterial District Court for years and are familiar with its inner workings. Joseph D. Lento can negotiate with judges and the prosecution to help alleviate any unnecessary fines or jail time. Call 888-535-3686 today for a case evaluation.