If you are the subject of any legal proceeding in Lackawanna County, it's in your interest to know as much as possible about the court system. We've prepared answers to some common questions that our clients in Lackawanna County pose to us.
If you are set to interact with a Magisterial District Court in Lackawanna County, we hope that these questions and answers will be empowering to you.
What Does “Magisterial District Court” Mean?
A Magisterial District Court is one tier of Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial System. The stated mission of these district courts is to “foster public trust and confidence in an independent judiciary, and to provide high quality, courteous service to all users of the district judge courts by processing cases and resolving disputes in a manner that reflects the System's commitment to open access to the courts, fairness, impartiality, administrative efficiency, fiscal responsibility and public accountability.”
This is a wordy way of stating that if you're facing a citation, minor criminal charge, minor civil case, or similar legal proceeding in Lackawanna County, you may complete your case through a Magisterial District Court. Ten district judges preside over each Magisterial District Court in Lackawanna County.
What Types of Cases Do Lackawanna County's Magisterial District Courts Handle?
Note first that Magisterial District Courts are distinct from Pennsylvania's Courts of Common Pleas. A Court of Common Pleas generally hears more serious criminal and civil cases where a conviction could result in significant fines, incarceration, and similarly serious penalties. These courts are known as “trial” courts.
If your case is taking place in a Magisterial District Court, then an alleged offense may be comparatively minor, or you may be dealing with a civil matter with modest damages. Another possibility is that your case is simply in the preliminary stages. Magisterial District Courts are referred to as “minor” courts. (Source: https://www.pmconline.org/resources/pennsylvania-court-structure)
If you eventually appeal a ruling from your Magisterial District Court, or a judge elects for a case transfer, then your legal matter may proceed to the Court of Common Pleas.
Some cases and issues that a Magisterial District Court in Lackawanna County may handle are:
- Civil cases with damages less than $12,000
- Traffic infractions
- Minor criminal offenses
- Preliminary hearings
- Setting of bail
Your case may not become public record if it's taking place in the Magisterial District Court, though there are exceptions.
I'm Set to Appear in a Lackawanna County Magisterial District Court. How Should I Proceed?
If you know that you're going to appear in a Lackawanna County Magisterial District Court, you may first want to hire an attorney. Your lawyer will ensure that you're prepared for the process that lies ahead and that you have a clear legal strategy for your case.
Regardless of whether you hire an attorney, you should prepare for your appearance by:
- Contacting the party listed on your summons if it is unclear when your appearance date is or where you should appear
- Marking your calendar with the date and time of your court appearance
- Arriving well before your appearance time, as the Magisterial District Court may consider a failure to appear to be an arrest-worthy offense
- Being presentable when you appear in court
Having an attorney on your side will provide peace of mind. They will ensure that you know when to appear, how to access the courtroom, and how you should act when your appearance begins.
Do I Have to Hire an Attorney for a Magisterial District Court Appearance in Lackawanna County?
No, you don't have to hire an attorney. However, hiring a qualified attorney to represent you is a wise move for most, even if you consider your legal matter to be relatively minor.
Representing yourself pro se means going without a lawyer. In many cases, a defendant may represent themselves in an attempt to save money. You should consider, though, the greater cost of entering a Lackawanna County Magisterial District Court without an effective legal counselor by your side.
The greatest possible costs, of course, are convictions and financial penalties that you may have avoided had you retained an effective attorney. A qualified attorney can assist you by:
- Using their legal training and experience to craft a defense
- Handling communications in your case, which will prevent you from saying something that may lead to a conviction or diminish your leverage
- Lending their investigators, paralegals, experts, and other resources to your case
- Freeing you from the stress, worry, effort, and time of defending yourself
Your attorney may even have a prior relationship with judges and prosecutors in Lackawanna County. Such relationships may be invaluable in securing a positive result in your case.
In some instances, a defendant may be forbidden from representing themselves. If the court determines that the defendant is not cognitively fit to represent themselves, then they may require that a lawyer step in. Assuming that you could represent yourself, we still advise that you don't. Let a lawyer help as only a lawyer can.
Should I Plead Guilty in Order to Resolve My Case as Quickly as Possible?
Does this question sound ridiculous? Well, you may be surprised at the number of defendants who ask this question without a hint of humor or sarcasm.
No, you should not plead guilty to resolve your case as quickly as possible. In fact, you should not plead guilty unless you've consulted legal counsel and are accepting a well-considered plea agreement.
A conviction, including a flippant guilty plea, may:
- Result in you developing or lengthening a criminal record, which you may not be able to seal from public request for the foreseeable future
- Cause you to lose your job
- Cause significant financial stress due to fines, lost income, and difficulty securing future employment
- Create adverse consequences in family court
- Cause you to suffer harsher consequences in any future criminal proceedings
There is simply no excuse for pleading guilty in the name of expediency. An attorney will compose a clear plan for seeking dismissal of charges against you or the next best outcome.
If I've Already Been Arrested, Has the Damage Been Done?
An arrest is not nearly as consequential as a conviction. Unjust arrests occur all the time, and employers, landlords, and courts may not view an arrest prejudicially. A conviction, on the other hand, suggests that you've received due process, and the court still deemed you responsible for a criminal offense.
While an arrest may not even appear on your criminal record, a conviction generally will. While you may eventually be able to expunge or seal a conviction, your life may be harmed significantly while the conviction remains on your record. Even if you can eventually seal the record of conviction, some parties may be able to view the record forever.
Your priority right now should be on avoiding a conviction—there is nothing you can do about an arrest. For most defendants facing criminal charges in a Lackawanna County Magisterial District Court, avoiding a conviction starts with hiring an attorney.
An Attorney Will Guide You Through a Preliminary Hearing and All Other Stages of Your Case
Preliminary hearings are something of a dress rehearsal for your trial, should your case proceed to the trial stage. During the preliminary process, your attorney, the prosecutor in your case, and others may exchange evidence, question witnesses, and gain an understanding of each party's case—for either your guilt or innocence.
The purpose of this hearing is for a judge to determine whether:
- Your case should proceed to trial
- The charges against you should be dropped
- Your case should be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas
These possible outcomes make the preliminary hearing a critical stage in your case. Therefore, it's best to give an attorney ample time to prepare for your preliminary hearing.
Your Attorney Will Explore the Possibility of the ARD Program
The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition program, or ARD program for short, is a unique legal resolution offered by the state of Pennsylvania. If you apply for this program, you may forego a preliminary hearing and accept a predetermined set of consequences.
The ARD program is not right for everyone who appears in a Lackawanna County Magisterial District Court, but the option exists for a reason. Your attorney can discuss the merits and drawbacks of this program and explain whether it is a viable option based on your circumstances.
Contact the Lento Law Firm Today About Representing You in Lackawanna County
The Lento Law Firm handles several practice areas that may be the subject of a Magisterial District Court proceeding. From traffic offenses to DUI and other criminal and civil matters, we have the expertise to represent you in court today.
Lead attorney Joseph D. Lento has spent many years advocating for clients. No matter the nature of a client's case, Joseph Lento and his team fight for the best possible outcome. We will guide you through the entire legal process, providing sound legal advice along the way.
Call The Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or submit your case details online. The consequences of a negative legal outcome can alter the course of your life, and you deserve an effective legal defense.