Have you recently been served a citation by law enforcement or arrested on a summary charge in Delaware County, PA? If so, you have likely been summoned to appear in Magisterial District Court. This fact may raise some questions and even fears. What does the summons mean? Does a summons mean you have a criminal record? Do you need a lawyer? Will there be a trial? To help alleviate these concerns, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following answers to a few of our most common questions about Delaware County Magisterial District Courts.
What Is a Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court?
In the Pennsylvania court system, Magisterial District Courts are lower or “minor courts” that deal with lesser offenses, municipal violations, and the like. There are more than 500 such courts in districts across the state of Pennsylvania—30 in Delaware County alone. Each Magisterial District Court is presided over by an elected Magisterial District Judge.
What Is the Difference Between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
As the lowest tier of the Pennsylvania Unified Court System, Magisterial District Courts serve several lower-court functions. They act as “small claims” courts for civil cases of less than $12,000, landlord-tenant disputes, etc. They also deal with municipal violations like traffic tickets and other citations, as well as summary offenses (e.g., loitering, disorderly conduct, low-level theft). Finally, Magisterial District Courts are used for preliminary hearings in misdemeanor and felony cases to determine whether these cases should be bound over for trial.
The Courts of Common Pleas, on the other hand, serve as Pennsylvania's primary trial courts. These courts handle larger-dollar civil lawsuits, family law cases (e.g., divorce, custody battles), and jury trials for criminal misdemeanor and felony cases.
What Does It Mean When I am Summoned to Appear in Delaware County Magisterial District Court?
A court summons is a mandate to appear in court regarding a case in which you are listed as a defendant. In civil suits, it basically means you are being sued; in criminal cases, it means you have been cited for a municipal violation or charged with a criminal offense for which you need to answer.
The most important thing to remember when summoned to Magisterial District Court is to make sure you show up at the date and time written on the summons. Failing to do so is a violation of the law, and a warrant may be issued for your arrest. You would also do well to hire an attorney to represent your interests.
Does a Court Summons Mean I Now Have a Criminal Record?
Not necessarily. If you receive a summons for a summary offense, it does not generate a criminal record unless you are convicted or plead guilty. If the charges are dismissed, it is expunged immediately from your record. An arrest for a misdemeanor or felony offense may appear on your record even if not convicted, although these can sometimes be expunged. But for summary offenses, there is essentially no criminal record without a conviction. This is another reason why hiring an attorney may be helpful.
It should be noted that there is an important distinction between having a criminal record for purposes of a Pennsylvania State Police background check versus information that may be available to the general public. Once charged or cited, the case information will appear on Pennsylvania public court dockets, and even if automatically sealed at a later time if there is no conviction, the records will still exist although in a lesser capacity than if there was a conviction. This is one reason why a person who is eligible to seek an expungement at the applicable time should do so in almost all instances.
Is It Necessary to Hire an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
You can legally represent yourself without hiring an attorney, but it's highly inadvisable. Attempting to represent yourself in court without an attorney-level understanding of the court system will quite often result in higher fines and even jail time—not to mention a criminal record—all of which you may be able to avoid by hiring an attorney.
What Happens if I Just Plead Guilty to a Summary Offense?
Pleading guilty to a summary offense has the same result as being convicted. It may make you subject to fines and possibly jail time, plus it will create a criminal record, which could hurt your employment prospects and possibly even place limits on where you can live. We recommend consulting with an experienced defense attorney before making any decisions on how to plead in Magisterial District Court. A skilled attorney with knowledge of the system may be able to get charges reduced or even dismissed, depending on the circumstances of the case.
I Have Been Scheduled for a Preliminary Hearing for Misdemeanor or Felony Charges. What Can I Expect?
First, it's important to know that a preliminary hearing is not a trial. There is no jury present, and no one is trying to determine your guilt or innocence at this stage. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is simply for both sides to present their evidence so the Magisterial District Judge can decide whether there is a legitimate reason to refer your case for trial.
At the preliminary hearing, you appear before the judge with your attorney, along with the prosecutors and the arresting officer. Both sides will present evidence and may call witnesses, and both sides may cross-examine witnesses—but again, the goal is to determine whether there should be a trial, not to prove your guilt or innocence.
At the end of the hearing, the Magisterial District Judge will make a ruling. If there is not enough evidence or a legitimate reason to bring the case to trial, the judge will dismiss the case, and the matter is settled. If he/she believes a trial is warranted, the judge will bind over the case for trial at the Court of Common Pleas, to be scheduled for a later date.
What Do I Do if I Receive a Summons to Appear in Delaware County Magisterial Court?
Your first step in dealing with a summons should be to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney—preferably someone with specific experience in the local Magisterial District Courts. Hiring an attorney with localized knowledge of the prosecutors and judges can go a long way toward helping you obtain a more favorable outcome.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a PA criminal defense lawyer with many years of successful experience defending clients in Delaware County Magisterial Courts. Don't take chances with your future or criminal record, even for summary offenses; let us help. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686.