Q&A – Cumberland County Magisterial District Court

There are 10 Magisterial District Courts in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Each of these courts is overseen by an individual elected magisterial judge. If you are summoned to appear in court or have scheduled a hearing in a Magisterial District Court in Cumberland County, you may not know what to do. You should be aware of the basic facts about a court appearance. These are summarized below. We can guide you through this complex process.

What is Magisterial District Court?

Pennsylvania divides its Unified Judicial system into different levels. The Magisterial District Court is the lowest level of the court system and where most first-time offenders encounter the judicial system. Magisterial District Judges supervise matters such as traffic citations, minor criminal cases, and civil lawsuits, with each such matter consisting of amounts in question of less than $12,000. Magisterial Courts will also supervise supplementary matters like preliminary hearings and indictments for misdemeanors as well as felonies before sending the cases on to the Court of Common Pleas.

How do Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas Differ?

Magisterial District Courts oversee small claims, minor lawsuits, and non-traffic citations such as harassment and low-level shoplifting, where the conviction is usually a fine rather than incarceration. Unless otherwise requested, cases heard here are not a matter of public record. In comparison, the Court of Common Pleas in Cumberland County is a trial court where the larger civil and criminal cases are heard and recorded into the public record. These cases usually require a jury to decide the innocence or guilt of the defendant.

If you have a concern about having a criminal record, you need to be aware that matters with the Magisterial District Court may become public, even though the Magisterial District Court does not usually release court reporter records into the permanent public record. The magistrate will record into the court docket the actions and motions relating to the case. The Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies will maintain copies of these records.

I've Been Summoned to Appear in Cumberland County Magisterial District Court. What Should I Do Next?

What should you do if you receive your summons or the court notifies you that you have to appear in a Cumberland County Magisterial District Court? First, note the date and time specified. Second, arrive early to avoid inadvertently missing the appearance. If that happens, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. At this point, you should contact an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney. An attorney will set up a conference with you to review your case, review the facts concerning the suit, and begin to build an effective defense that will vigorously seek to mitigate the potential trouble you may otherwise experience.

Do I need to Hire an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?

In Magisterial Court, you are not required have to hire an attorney. Actually, in most courts across the country, you do are not required to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does require that you have the right to a lawyer who will work diligently on your behalf to build a vigorous defense, but you are not required to accept such that offer. If the judge decides that you are of sound mind (i.e., not a minor or found infirm in some way), you can represent yourself in many instances. This is called “pro se.” You do not have a right to legal counsel in civil suits, so you are more easily able to represent yourself without the approval of the magistrate.

Even though you may be able to represent yourself, you should realize that course of action is not in your best interest. Attorneys are highly skilled professionals with the knowledge and experience to defend your case. They have experience with the internal practices of the courts, and they know how to speak to attorneys or the judge as well as when to interject on your behalf. An experienced attorney may be able to negotiate a reduction or dismissal of the charges. Without an attorney, you will be at risk of missing critical objections, complying with witness notification requirements, and effectively and legally questioning witnesses. You may serve jail time or pay hefty that could have been avoided. The question to ask is, “Is something at stake?” If so, you need an experienced attorney.

Why Not Just Plead Guilty?

You need to discuss your case with an experienced attorney before you plead guilty. Just because Pennsylvania refers to Cumberland County Magisterial Court as a “minor court,” you need to be aware of the consequences of your decision. The long-term effects of pleading guilty to any case in any court can be detrimental to a serious extent. If you plead guilty, you willingly agree to have a conviction entered on your record and subject yourself to whatever consequences the court decides. Criminal case convictions are recorded in your permanent criminal record, and a conviction for civil offenses or non-traffic offenses can still lead to significant fines or incarceration. Additionally, convictions can affect your ability to get a new job, work with children or seniors, or even where you reside. An experienced attorney can counsel you to achieve the most positive possible outcome.

Does Being Arrested Affect My Criminal Record?

Being arrested does not necessarily affect your criminal record. If your attorney can have the charges dismissed, they will not appear on your criminal record. But, if you plead guilty or are convicted, even of traffic offenses, they will appear on your record. In Pennsylvania, all some only needs is your full name to search for a criminal record.

If you have any concerns about the existence of court or criminal records, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to guide and navigate the court process so to avoid or minimize the potential consequences related to the charges. This is particularly the case for those concerned about school and educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and professional licensing. Record sealing is not the same as expungement, and all considerations aside, a defendant should seek an expungement when otherwise eligible

What Should I Expect at My Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate Court?

At the preliminary hearing, all the relevant parties make an appearance before the judge. This includes the prosecutor, the arresting officer, the complainant, and you, along with your attorney. You will not see a jury, because this hearing is not a trial. The prosecution will present their case against you, and your attorney will present a defense. Sometimes, witnesses are called by the prosecutor, and your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine them.

Though there are significant differences, the preliminary hearing is a little bit like a trial before the trial. The purpose is to allow the Cumberland County Magistrate to decide whether there is enough evidence to compel the defendant to stand trial. The magistrate will also determine if the defendant's case should be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. If the magistrate decides there is not enough evidence to compel the defendant to stand trial, your charges may be dropped altogether.

Can I Participate in the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?

The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program is Pennsylvania's way for first-time offenders without a record of convictions to waive their right to a preliminary hearing and prosecution and avoid Magisterial Court altogether. If you participate in the ARD program, you essentially plead guilty, but that plea is put on pause while you complete a probationary period. Once that probation is completed, the original charges are dropped and can be expunged. But, if you do not successfully complete the probation, your guilty plea is automatically entered for the first offense. The ARD program still has a significant effect on your future, so it is important to discuss all the outcomes of your summons with an experienced attorney who can advise you of the best possible options.

If your attorney advises you to participate in the ARD program, they will help you apply to the District Attorney's Office. Upon approval, you will be told the conditions of your program, which might include reporting to a probation officer, paying fines, and performing community service.

The ARD program can be a slow and extended process. It may or may not be the best possible outcome for your case.

Your attorney might be able to negotiate a more positive outcome, such as having your case dismissed or withdrawn at the preliminary hearing level rather than having the case proceed to the Court of Common Pleas. Either way, an experienced Cumberland County attorney will advise you on the best course of action for you.

Who Can I Call for Help if I am Summoned to Magistrate District Court in Cumberland County, PA?

When you receive your summons, the first person you should call is an experienced attorney who advises clients on such matters and in the relevant court. The Lento Law Firm has extensive experience representing many clients in Luzerne County Magisterial District Courts. Joseph D. Lento and his team know the Magisterial Court's practices and the best manner in which to communicate and negotiate with the judges and prosecution. They will work vigorously to represent you so that you avoid any unnecessary fines or incarceration. You can contact us at 888-535-3686 today to schedule an evaluation of your case. Do not try to navigate these murky waters alone. The Lento Law Firm can advise you.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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