If you have received notice to appear at a Magisterial Court in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, you may have some apprehension as to what to expect. Appearing in court can indeed be a bit intimidating, even for seemingly minor infractions. The more informed you are about how the court works, the more prepared you will be when you appear. To that end, the Lento Law Firm has provided the following information to cover some of the basic things you need to know.
What Is Magisterial Court?
Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial System consists of different tiers. The Magisterial Court is the lowest tier in the state's court system. Magisterial Courts handle most local ordinance infractions, traffic violations, minor criminal cases, and civil matters in disputes involving amounts of $12,000 or less. Magisterial Courts can also handle additional matters such as preliminary hearings for misdemeanors or felonies before these cases are transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. Lebanon County currently has 6 Magisterial District Courts; each presided over by an elected magisterial judge.
How Is the Magisterial District Court Different From a Court of Common Pleas?
Magisterial District Courts handle small claims and minor civil lawsuits, along with minor summary offenses that typically don't involve any jail time. Examples of summary offenses include harassment, public drunkenness, retail theft, minor shoplifting, etc. There are no jury trials in these courts--the Magisterial Judge simply makes a ruling based on the evidence presented. Unless requested or arrangements are made, cases heard here will not become public record in the sense that court testimony will not be recorded. (Court records related to the case itself will appear in public records, however. Please see the further explanation in the section that follows.) The Court of Common Pleas in Lebanon County is the next tier up from Magisterial District Court—a trial court that hears larger-dollar civil cases and more serious criminal cases that can result in a criminal record and more significant jail or prison time. These cases often require a jury to determine whether a defendant is guilty.
Does This Mean I Won't Have a Criminal Record if I Appear Before a Magisterial District Judge?
Not necessarily. Although Magisterial District Court does not usually publish records from court reporters into the permanent public record, that doesn't mean there won't be a public record. Every case is still recorded by the Magistrate into the Pennsylvania public docket. Copies will also be kept by the Pennsylvania State Police, as well as other law enforcement agencies. Thus, if you're concerned about public records at all, you should still take your appearance at Magisterial District Court seriously.
Does Being Arrested Impact My Criminal Record?
Not necessarily. If your attorney is able to get the charges dismissed, your arrest should not appear on your criminal record (once expunged or sealed, which are separate processes that would have to take place at a later applicable time). However, any charges that you are convicted of or plead guilty to--no matter how minor--will be on your criminal record. These records are both public and searchable in the State of Pennsylvania.
Recent changes in Pennsylvania law have provided some relief for those with criminal records. Automatic record sealing occurs in many cases after a specified period of time. However, record sealing is not the same as expungement, and some records may still be visible. Anyone who is concerned about the existence of criminal and court records, particularly when it comes to background checks for education, career, employment, or professional licensure, should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to help them navigate the court process and avoid or minimize potential consequences. If you do have a conviction on your record, an attorney can also advise you on when you're eligible for expungement and seek to have the record expunged.
I Have Been Summoned To Appear Before the Lebanon County Magisterial Court District Court. What Happens Now?
First, you should take note of the time and date specified in your court summons and make sure you arrive on time for the court date. Missing your court appearance may result in a warrant being issued for your arrest. Next, you should contact an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney. The attorney will meet with you to review your case and to help you build a solid defense to get you the most positive outcome possible.
Do I Need an Attorney To Represent Me in Magisterial District Court?
In almost all courts, you have the legal right to represent yourself pro se unless you are a minor or deemed to be mentally unfit to do so. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to have a lawyer represent them (even at the government's expense), but you are under no obligation to accept the offer.
That being said, it is typically not in your best interests to represent yourself, even in Magisterial District Court. You may not know the proper way to question or cross-examine witnesses, when to object, etc., and not knowing these things could cost you in the way of excessive fines or even jail time. An attorney is a skilled individual with the experience and knowledge to effectively defend your case. They are familiar with court procedures, including how to talk to judges or attorneys and when to intervene on your behalf. An experienced attorney might be able to get your charges reduced or dismissed, and they can negotiate for minimum fines and avoidance of jail time, saving you huge disruptions to your life in the process.
Isn't It Easier Just To Plead Guilty to Minor Offenses and Be Done With It?
It might be easier, but it's often not beneficial. It's a mistake to think that just because Lebanon County Magisterial Court is considered a “minor court,” your penalties will also be minor. Pleading guilty at any time results in a criminal conviction that is recorded on your permanent criminal record, and even a conviction for non-traffic or civil offenses could still result in significant fines and jail time. These convictions may ultimately affect your ability to find a job, work with seniors or children, or even find a place to live. An experienced attorney can help you increase your chances of a positive outcome so you can avoid these consequences.
What Happens at My Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate Court?
At the preliminary hearing, you and your attorney will appear before the judge along with the prosecutors and the arresting officer or complainant. Since this is a preliminary hearing and not a trial, there will be no jury present. Your attorney will present evidence for your defense, while the prosecution will present evidence against you. The prosecution might also present witnesses, and your attorney will have an opportunity to cross-examine them. (Think of this as a “trial before the trial.”)
After both sides have presented their case and witnesses have been questioned, the Lebanon County Magistrate will determine if there is sufficient evidence to merit a trial. If so, the Magistrate will transfer the case to the Court of Common Pleas. If not, the charges may be dropped completely.
What Is the ARD Program for Summary Offenses? Am I Eligible?
The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition Program (ARD) is a program in Pennsylvania that helps first-time offenders without any prior convictions. You must apply to the District Attorney's Office to determine if you are eligible for the ARD program. If approved by the DA for the program, you will need to complete a list of requirements over a period of time, which may include probation, fines, and community service. Upon completion of the program, you may petition to have your criminal record expunged.
While the ARD is a good option for some, it's not a metaphorical “get out of jail free card.” By entering the ARD program, although you are not entering a plea, you are waiving your right to a preliminary hearing before prosecutors and the Magistrate, where you might have had your charges dismissed for lack of evidence. This could still have a profound impact on your future.
Getting your record cleared through an ARD program can be a slow, tedious process that isn't right for everyone. It is important that you discuss all outcomes of your summons with an experienced attorney who can help you decide the best course of action. Your attorney may be able to negotiate a positive outcome for your case that will result in your case being withdrawn or dismissed at the preliminary hearing level rather than proceeding to the Court of Common Pleas. Whether or not you choose to apply for the ARD program, an experienced Lebanon County attorney can help you decide on the best course of action for you.
Whom Can I Call For Help if I'm Summoned to the Magisterial District Court in Lebanon County, PA?
When you get your summons, the first person to call is an attorney who has specific experience in the court in which you are being summoned. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have many years of experience representing clients in the Lebanon County Magisterial District Courts and throughout Pennsylvania. Attorney Lento and his team are highly familiar with the court's workings and knows how to communicate and negotiate effectively with judges and the prosecution. They will do everything possible to make sure your rights are protected and to help you avoid unnecessary jail time, fines, and other potential adverse consequences. To schedule a case evaluation, call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-386 today.