Receiving a court summons always feels like a matter of grave importance, even for what some may regard as minor offenses. If you have been summoned to appear in a Lancaster County Magisterial District Court—or if you were recently arrested and are scheduled to appear in court—you may have some questions and concerns. How does this court summons affect your criminal record? Should you have an attorney present? What are the next steps?
Knowledge is power, and the more you understand about something, the less fearful it may become. Below are answers to some of the most pressing questions people have about Lancaster County Magisterial District Courts.
What Is a Magisterial District Court?
Magisterial District Courts make up a network of lower or “minor courts” within the Pennsylvania Unified Court System. There are more than 500 such courts throughout the State of Pennsylvania—19 in Lancaster County alone—each presided over by an elected Magisterial District Judge. These courts deal primarily with lower-level offenses and low-dollar civil disputes, as well as holding preliminary hearings for misdemeanor and felony charges before the official trials begin.
What Is the Difference Between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
The Magisterial District Courts are the lowest tier in the Pennsylvania Court System, and as such, they serve several functions. First, they deal with municipal violations such as parking tickets, moving violations, and the like. Second, they handle lesser “summary offenses” such as loitering, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, etc.—offenses below the misdemeanor level. Third, they are the “first stop” for preliminary hearings for misdemeanor and felony offenses. And fourth, they handle civil disputes totaling less than $12,000, along with other minor cases like landlord-tenant disputes. Magisterial District Courts are not “courts of record,” meaning no court reporter documents proceedings unless specifically requested. Also, these courts do not hold jury trials; all determinations are made by the presiding judge.
The Courts of Common Pleas are the next tier up in the PA court system, serving as Pennsylvania's primary trial courts. These courts accommodate larger civil lawsuits, family law cases, and jury trials for criminal misdemeanor and felony cases.
I Have Been Summoned to Appear in Lancaster County Magisterial District Court. What Does This Mean?
A court summons is a mandate to appear in court regarding a case in which you are listed as a defendant. (This is different from a subpoena, which means you are being called as a witness.) A summons to Magisterial Court will typically be for a low-dollar civil case or a citation for a summary offense for which you have been charged.
If you receive a summons, you should contact an attorney to discuss your options and represent your interests. Also, make sure you show up at the date and time written on the summons. If you don't, a warrant may be issued for your arrest.
How Does a Magisterial District Court Affect My Criminal Record?
It doesn't—not directly. If you have only been charged with a summary offense, you will not have a criminal record unless you are convicted of, or plead guilty to, the offense. If the charges end up being dismissed, any records of the charges can be expunged as applicable. (Once charged or cited, however, the case information will appear on Pennsylvania public court dockets, so if a person is eligible to seek an expungement at the applicable time, it is a step that should be taken in almost all instances.)
I Was Summoned to Magisterial District Court on a Minor Summary Offense. Do I Need an Attorney?
You have the right to represent yourself without an attorney, but it's highly inadvisable to do so. An experienced defense attorney with a good working knowledge of the Lancaster County courts can negotiate for outcomes you would not be able to do on your own. Even with summary offenses, most people who represent themselves come away with unnecessarily higher fines and possibly jail time, not to mention a criminal record that might have been avoided with the help of an attorney.
What Happens if I Plead Guilty to a Summary Offense?
Pleading guilty may seem like the quickest way to resolve the matter, but you should be aware of the consequences involved with that decision. A guilty plea is the same as a conviction, and even with summary offenses, that can mean fines and jail time. In addition, you'll now have a criminal record, which may have an impact on your ability to work at certain jobs or live in certain places.
The fact is, pleading guilty or not guilty to the charge may not be the only options you have. Depending on the circumstances of your case, a skilled attorney may be able to get the charges reduced or even dismissed. Always consult with your attorney about all your options before entering a plea.
What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing in Magisterial District Court?
Preliminary hearings are held in Magisterial District Courts for misdemeanor and felony charges that may eventually go to trial. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is not to decide whether you are guilty or innocent of the charges, and there will be no jury present. The purpose of this hearing is strictly to decide whether there is sufficient reason to send your case to trial. (In many cases, a good attorney can work to have the charges reduced or even dropped at this stage.)
At this hearing, you appear before with your attorney in front of the Magisterial District Judge, along with the prosecutors and the arresting officer. Both sides may present evidence, call witnesses, and cross-examine opposing witnesses, but remember—the purpose is only to demonstrate whether there is enough evidence against you to justify taking the matter to trial.
Once both sides have presented their evidence, the Magisterial District Judge will decide whether the case should move forward. If he deems there is insufficient evidence or other reasons not to move the case ahead, the judge will dismiss the charges then and there. Otherwise, the judge will bind over the case for trial at the Court of Common Pleas.
What Do I Do to Prepare if I Receive a Court Summons to Lancaster County Magisterial District Court?
It bears repeating: It is not in your best interest to respond to a court summons without legal representation. Thus, your first step after receiving a summons should be to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Doing so can go a long way toward helping you obtain a more favorable outcome.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a PA criminal defense lawyer who has a long track record of success in representing clients before Lancaster County Magisterial District Courts. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to discuss your options.