There are 19 Magisterial District Courts in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. An individual elected magisterial judge oversees each of these courts. If you are notified that you must appear or have scheduled a hearing in a Magisterial District Court in Lancaster County, you might be nervous or unsure of what to do. It's important to go into these situations knowing some basic facts, which we've outlined below. We hope this eases your mind.
What is Magisterial District Court?
Pennsylvania breaks up their Unified Judicial system into different tiers. The Magisterial District Court is the lowest tier of the state's court system and where most first-time offenders experience the judicial system. Magisterial District Judges supervise traffic citations, minor criminal cases, and civil lawsuits, which consist of less than $12,000 in question. Magisterial Courts will also hold supplementary matters like preliminary hearings and indictments for misdemeanors and felonies before the cases are sent up to the Court of Common Pleas.
What's the Difference Between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
Magisterial District Courts oversee small claims, minor lawsuits, and non-traffic citations like harassment and low-level shoplifting where the conviction is usually a fine, not jail time. Cases heard here are not a matter of public record unless that is specifically requested. But the Court of Common Pleas in Lancaster County is a trial court where more costly civil and criminal cases are heard and recorded into the public record. These cases usually require a jury to decide whether or not the defendant is guilty.
Individuals who are worried about having a criminal record need to keep in mind that just because Magisterial District Court doesn't usually publish court reporter records into the permanent public record, it doesn't mean that there won't be a record at all. The magistrate will record into the Pennsylvania public court docket everything that happens in relation to the case, and the Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies will keep copies of these records.
I've Been Summoned to Appear in Lancaster County Magisterial District Court. What Should I Do Next?
When you receive your summons or the court notifies you that you have to appear in a Lancaster County Magisterial District Court, take note of the date and time specified. Make sure you show up on that date a few minutes early. You do not want to accidentally miss the appearance as the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. At this point, you should reach out to an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney. An attorney will set up a conference with you to go over your case, review the facts concerning the suit, and begin to build a solid defense that will mitigate any adverse effects of such a case.
Do I need to Hire an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
In Magisterial Court, you do not technically have to hire an attorney. Actually, in most courts across the country, you do not have to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that criminal defendants have the right to a lawyer who will work diligently on your behalf to build a solid defense, but you don't have to take the court up on that offer. If the judge decides the defendant is of sound mind (i.e., not a minor or found infirm in some way), a criminal defendant can represent themselves pro se (without counsel) in many instances. There is no guarantee of legal counsel in civil suits, so the defendant has an easier time representing themselves pro se without the magistrate getting involved.
Even though you technically may be able to represent yourself and forego attorney help, it is certainly not in your best interest to do so. Attorneys are skilled individuals with the knowledge and experience to defend your case in court effectively. They have experience with the courts' inner workings, how to speak to attorneys or the judge, and when to interject on your behalf. A qualified attorney may even be able to get the charges reduced or dismissed. If you represent yourself, you may not know when to object, how to notify witnesses, or what is acceptable questioning for your witness on the first round of questioning vs. cross-examination. You may end up serving jail time or paying hefty fines for no reason. An attorney can help avoid these unnecessary punishments. The simple question to ask is, "Is something at stake?" If something is at stake, you need an attorney.
Can't I Just Plead Guilty and Get it Over With?
If this is your thinking after receiving your summons to a Magisterial District Court, then it's time to discuss your case with an experienced attorney. Just because Pennsylvania refers to Lancaster County Magisterial Court as a "minor court," please refrain from thinking that means its consequences are less severe than the Court of Common Pleas. The long-term effects of pleading guilty to any case in any court can be detrimental to your life. Pleading guilty means you are knowingly creating a conviction against yourself. 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 jail time. Additionally, these convictions can affect your ability to get a new job, work with children or seniors, or even where you can take up residence. Hiring an experienced attorney can give you the necessary guidance to increase your odds for a positive outcome.
Does Being Arrested Affect My Criminal Record?
Being arrested doesn't necessarily affect your criminal record. If your attorney can have the charges dismissed, they won't appear on your criminal record at all. But, if you plead guilty or are convicted, even of traffic offenses, they will end up on your record. These records are public, and in Pennsylvania, all you need to search for a criminal record is the defendant's full name.
Changes in Pennsylvania law in recent years have offered some potential relief in light of automatic record sealing taking place in many instances after a designated period of time, but for anyone with any concerns regarding the existence of court and/or criminal records, especially those concerned about school and educational opportunities, career and employment opportunities, and professional licensing, you need to have an experienced criminal defense attorney help guide and navigate the court process so to avoid or minimize the potential consequences related to charges. Record sealing is not the same as expungement, and all considerations aside, a defendant should seek an expungement when otherwise eligible.
What Happens at My Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate Court?
At the preliminary hearing, you and your attorney, the prosecution, and the arresting officer and/or complainant will appear before the judge. Because this is not a trial, the jury will not be present. The prosecution will present their evidence against you, and your attorney will present evidence in your defense. At this point, the prosecution may also present witnesses, which your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine.
Although not a perfect analogy, a preliminary hearing is basically the trial before the trial (although the defendant will in almost all instances not testify at a preliminary hearing). During this time, the Lancaster County Magistrate will decide whether there is enough evidence to compel the defendant to stand trial. They will also determine if the defendant's case should be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. If the magistrate decides there isn't enough evidence to compel the defendant to stand trial, they may drop the charges altogether.
Can I Participate in the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?
In Pennsylvania, there is a program for first-time offenders with no prior convictions. The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program allows these individuals to waive their right to a preliminary hearing and prosecution and avoiding Magisterial Court altogether. By applying to the ARD program, you are effectively accepting a guilty plea. This program is not a get out of jail free card. The ARD program still has a significant effect on your future, which is why it's important to discuss all the outcomes of your summons with a qualified attorney who can advise you of the best course of action.
To participate in the ARD program, you need to apply for it with the District Attorney's Office. If the DA approves you for the program, you will have to follow a specific list of steps, including probation, fines, and community service.
If you are facing summary offenses - loitering, shoplifting, or another minor non-traffic crime – and you hope to avoid a criminal record, the ARD program, which can be a slow and grueling process sometimes, may or may not be for you. Instead, your attorney might be able to negotiate a more positive outcome that will get your case dismissed or withdrawn at the preliminary hearing level rather than having the case proceed to the Court of Common Pleas. Either way, having a knowledgeable Lancaster County attorney working for you will guarantee you follow the best course of action for your particular case.
Who Can I Call for Help if I am Summoned to Magistrate District Court in Lancaster County, PA?
When you receive your summons, the first person you should call is an attorney with experience with this charge, and in the particular court, you are subject to. The Lento Law Firm has years of experience representing numerous clients in Lancaster County Magisterial District Courts. Joseph D. Lento and his team know the Magisterial Court's inner workings and how to speak to and negotiate with the judges and prosecution. They will work tirelessly to ensure you have a solid defense to alleviate any unnecessary fines or jail time. Call 888-535-3686 today to schedule a case evaluation. Don't try to navigate these murky waters alone. They can help.