If you live in Chester County, PA, and have either been ticketed by law enforcement or arrested on a summary charge or even charged with a misdemeanor or felony, you have probably been summoned to appear in Magisterial District Court. If so, you're likely to have several questions and concerns, especially if you have never been summoned to court before. Are you going to go on trial? Will you have a criminal record? Do you now need an attorney?
The following information contains answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about Chester County Magisterial District Courts, and it should hopefully alleviate your most pressing concerns.
What Is a Magisterial District Court in Pennsylvania?
Magisterial District Courts constitute the lowest tier within the Pennsylvania court system. They are found throughout the state, with the exception of Philadelphia County, which uses Municipal Courts instead. There are 17 Magisterial District Court locations in Chester County, each presided over by an elected Magisterial District Judge.
In civil matters, Magisterial District Courts are essentially “small claims” courts, dealing primarily with lawsuits of less than $12,000, landlord-tenant disputes, and the like. In criminal matters, Magisterial Courts handle municipal court violations (e.g., traffic/parking tickets) along with low-level summary offenses like disorderly conduct, public intoxication, loitering, low-level theft, etc.). For misdemeanor and felony charges, the Magisterial Courts handle the preliminary hearing stage to determine whether the charges should be dismissed or sent to the Court of Common Pleas for trial.
How is Magisterial District Court Different from the Court of Common Pleas?
The Courts of Common Pleas are general jurisdiction trial courts, handling jury trials for criminal charges as well as most civil suits, divorces, custody disputes, etc. Magisterial District Courts are “minor courts” designed to deal with small claims, lesser municipal offenses, and preliminary proceedings for criminal cases. There are no jury trials in Magisterial Court; both sides appear before the judge, who determines how to resolve the case or move it forward.
Will Appearing in Magisterial District Court Give Me a Criminal Record?
Not necessarily. If you have been charged with a summary offense, a criminal record won't be generated unless you are convicted or plead guilty. Likewise, if you are appearing in Magisterial Court for your preliminary hearing for a misdemeanor or felony charge, this hearing provides your attorney the opportunity to get the charges dismissed due to lack of evidence or other factors. If the case is dismissed, you won't have a criminal record at all, and certainly not a criminal conviction (at least for purposes of background checks involving Pennsylvania State Police records - until a case or charges are expunged or sealed as applicable at the applicable time, however, the Pennsylvania public court dockets will reflect the case and charges and disposition). However, if you are arrested for arrested for a misdemeanor or felony, that arrest will become a part of your criminal record even if you are later found not guilty or have the charges against you dismissed or reduced. You can pursue expungement to have it removed.
What Do I Do When I've Been Summoned to Appear in Chester County Magisterial District Court?
The most important thing is to make sure you show up in court at the date and time written on the summons. If you do not appear, a warrant may be issued for your arrest. You should also consider hiring an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to represent you in court, as doing so improves your chances for a more positive outcome.
Do I Have to Have an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
It's highly recommended that you be represented by an attorney in Magisterial Court, even for lesser summary offenses. If you try to represent yourself in court, your lack of understanding of the system could result in fines and even jail time—not to mention the creation of a criminal record. In many cases, some or all of these outcomes can be avoided simply by having a good defense attorney.
Should I Just Plead Guilty to a Summary Offense?
Pleading guilty is your prerogative, and you might be tempted to do so just to put an end to the matter—but you should be aware of the consequences of doing so. Even though you're in a “minor court” on a “minor charge,” pleading guilty results in a conviction—and that means you now have a criminal record, which can affect your ability to work at certain jobs or even live in certain places. A conviction can also result in fines and jail time, even for lesser offenses. By contrast, a good defense attorney can advise you of all your options (including the likely outcomes of pleading guilty, not guilty, or no contest). In addition, depending on the circumstances surrounding your charges, an attorney experienced with Magisterial District Courts may even be able to negotiate for a dismissal of the charges. It may be easier to plead guilty, but it may also be worth the extra effort to explore your other options.
I've Been Scheduled for a Preliminary Hearing at Magisterial District Court. What Can I Expect?
A preliminary hearing is not a trial. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is simply for the Magisterial District Judge to hear preliminary statements and evidence to determine whether your case should move forward to trial.
At the preliminary hearing, you appear in court with your attorney, along with the prosecutors and the arresting officer. The prosecutors will present evidence and may call witnesses; the arresting officer will also likely provide an account of what happened. Your defense attorney has the opportunity to present evidence on your behalf, cross-examine any witnesses brought by the prosecution, and call witnesses for the defense, as well. The purpose here is not to prove your guilt or innocence, but simply to decide whether there is sufficient evidence against you to justify taking the matter to trial.
When this hearing concludes, the judge decides based on the evidence presented. If he/she determines there is insufficient reason to move forward, the charges will be dismissed and the case closed. If not, the case will be bound over for trial at the Court of Common Pleas.
How Do I Choose a Good Attorney to Represent Me at Magisterial District Court in Chester County, PA?
The best defense attorney to represent you in Chester County Magisterial Court is someone who has specific experience in these courtrooms—someone who has interacted with the judge and the prosecutors, someone who understands the procedures and the inner workings. An attorney with this type of experience gives you the best advantage of seeking a positive outcome for your case.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a PA criminal defense lawyer with a long track record of success defending his clients in Chester County Magisterial Courts. To learn more about how we can help, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686.