There are 14 Magisterial District Courts in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, with each court overseen by an elected magisterial judge. If you've been ordered to appear before a Magisterial District Court, you probably have a lot of questions running through your mind. Going before a court can be a nerve-wracking experience, and you may not be sure what's going to be expected of you. By heading into the hearings armed with key information, you should be able to put your mind at ease. We've outlined some key information below regarding the Magisterial Court experience so that you can go into the process feeling a lot more confident.
What Does the Lehigh Magisterial District Court Do?
There are several different tiers on Pennsylvania's unified judicial system, and the Magisterial Court is on the lowest tier. This is the level where most first-time offenders dealing with the Pennsylvania court system end up getting their first taste of the state's justice system. If you're dealing with issues like traffic citations, civil cases and lawsuits (those dealing with less than $12,000), minor criminal charges, and other relatively minor issues, you'll most likely end up in one of Lehigh's Magisterial District Courts. In addition to these types of cases, the Magisterial Court sometimes handles other types of legal matters, including preliminary hearings for misdemeanors and felonies, before those cases are moved on to the next level of the PA court system, the Court of Common Pleas.
How Do the Lehigh Magisterial Court and the Lehigh Court of Common Pleas Differ?
As mentioned above, the Lehigh Magisterial Court is primarily in charge of relatively minor court proceedings, including lawsuits involving amounts of $12,000 or less, small claims issues, harassment, and cases of low-level shoplifting. These courts can also determine whether more serious cases should be moved up the ladder to the Courts of Common Pleas.
The Court of Common Pleas is an actual trial court that hears appeals in cases that have been sent up from lower courts. Juries are also usually a part of the Court of Common Pleas system, and those juries will decide on the guilt or innocence of the defendants.
What Do I Do Now That I've Been Summoned to Appear in Lehigh Magisterial District Court?
You'll know that you have to appear before Lehigh Magisterial District Court when you receive a summons or when the court notifies you in another way. Once you get your summons, make sure that you input the date and time into your planner right away so that you don't miss your court date. Give yourself plenty of time and plan on showing up early on the day of your appointment so that you don't miss your appearance. If you miss the appearance, a warrant could actually be issued for your arrest.
This is the point where you may benefit by reaching out to a Pennsylvania defense attorney with plenty of experience in this area. You and your attorney can meet to go over every aspect of your case. You'll be able to look at all of the facts of the case together. Once you do that, your attorney can help you develop your defense so that you are able to put your best foot forward.
Is An Attorney Actually Necessary for a Magisterial District Court Appearance?
When you go for an appearance at a Lehigh Magisterial District Court, you're not required to have an attorney. This is true when it comes to most courts in the United States. While the Constitution's 6th Amendment clearly states that criminal defendants have the right to counsel that will work in their best interests, no defendant is forced to actually get an attorney.
In cases where criminal defendants have made the decision to simply represent themselves, the judge can make the determination as to whether or not the defendant is of sound mind to even make that decision for themselves. If they decide that that's the case, the case will go ahead without the defendant having an official attorney.
In civil suits, there is no guarantee of legal counsel, so you are free to represent yourself in Magistrates' Court if you wish. The problem here is that it's still most likely not in your best interests to head into Magistrates' Court without some sort of attorney help. The great thing about an attorney is that they are extremely experienced in the various types of cases that go through a Magistrate Court. They know all of the ins and outs of the working of the Court, and they know when and how to speak to the judge. They even know how to interject on your behalf if something comes up.
With an attorney, you may even be able to have your charges reduced or dismissed. Heading into court without legal representation while the other side has an attorney could end up proving really disastrous for you. Attorneys have all the information and tactics at their fingertips that you want when heading into a Magistrates' Court.
As a non-lawyer, you have no way of knowing about the inner workings of Magistrates' Court. You may not know about tasks like how to gather witnesses, or how to object, or if the type of questioning that one of your witnesses is going through is permissible and proper. The very worst thing that could happen is that you could end up serving jail time or being responsible for huge fees and fines simply because you made a legal mistake in the way you represented yourself.
With an attorney on your side, the risk of that happening is greatly reduced. At the end of the day, you need to look at your specific situation. If a loss in Magistrates' Court could end up severely affecting your life, it's most likely in your best interest to get an attorney.
What If I Simply Plead Guilty?
Some people head into Magistrates' Court with the thinking that maybe they should just save themselves the hassle and simply plead guilty. They assume that because Magistrates' Court is a minor court, any punishment that they receive in the court would be minimal at best. This is the type of thinking that has gotten people into trouble.
Pleading guilty isn't just a technicality. That guilty admission is something that could follow you for the rest of your life. By pleading guilty, you're essentially saying that you committed a criminal act, and you're admitting to it. That criminal case conviction is now a part of your permanent record, whether or not it's for a relatively minor offense or a more serious case. On top of that, if your visit to Magistrates' Court is due to civil offenses or non-traffic offenses, you could still face jail time.
With a conviction on your record, you may not be able to apply for certain jobs. It may prevent you from being able to take jobs where seniors or children are involved. It may even inhibit your ability to live where you want to. Pleading guilty because you just can't be bothered is absolutely the last thing that you should ever do.
What Will Happen at the Preliminary Hearing at the Lehigh Magistrate Court?
The preliminary hearing is basically the trial before the trial. When you arrive at the preliminary hearing, you, your attorney if you have one, the prosecution, and the complainant or the arresting officer will appear in front of the judge. There is no jury in Magistrates' Court. The prosecution will start by presenting the evidence that it has against you, and your attorney will respond by presenting evidence in your defense. The prosecution can call witnesses if they have one, and your attorney will be able to cross-examine these witnesses.
After all of this information is heard, the Magistrate Judge will determine whether or not there is enough evidence for the case to move forward. If they believe there is, they will most likely have the case transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. If the judge determines that there isn't enough evidence to move forward, the case could be dismissed, and charges dropped. The judge also has the discretion of ordering jail time or imposing steep fines.
Who Can I Call for Help If I'm Called to Appear Before the District Court in Lehigh, PA?
It's truly in your best interest to call an attorney if you've been summoned to appear before the Lehigh Magisterial District Court. You need an attorney who has experience with the type of charge that you are dealing with. The Lento Law Firm has many years of experience representing all sorts of clients in the Lehigh County Magisterial District Court.
Joseph Lento and his team are fully familiar with the inner workings of this Court, and they know how to put their best foot forward and represent their clients in the best possible way. They will work hard to help ensure that you have the strong defense that you need to have the best possible outcome in your case. Don't do it alone. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation today.