You've just been summoned to appear in Monroe County Magisterial District Court in Pennsylvania. Even if you are being summoned for a traffic violation or some other minor offense, appearing in court can be quite intimidating. What happens if you are declared guilty? Should you plead guilty? Do you need an attorney? What effect with this have on your criminal record?
To help alleviate these concerns, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following common questions and answers about the Magisterial District Courts in Monroe County, PA, so you can be informed and prepared.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania is a multi-tiered system. The Magisterial District Courts are the lowest rung, the first point of contact most people have with the court system. Magisterial courts handle minor criminal cases, traffic violations, and local ordinance violations. They also handle civil matters in disputes with amounts less than $12,000. Magisterial Courts sometimes handle other matters, such as preliminary hearings and indictments for misdemeanors and felonies before they are transferred to the Court of Common Pleas for trial. There are currently nine Magisterial District Courts in Monroe County, each headed by an elected Magisterial Judge.
What Is the Difference Between Magisterial District Courts and the Courts of Common Pleas?
Magisterial District Courts deal with small claims and minor civil suits, as well as minor summary offenses such as harassment, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, or minor shoplifting--crimes that don't usually involve jail time (but that nonetheless have other serious consequences). Courts of Common Pleas are the next tier up. They are trial courts that handle felonies, misdemeanors, and civil cases with higher dollar amounts.
Summary offenses are typically handled completely within the Magisterial District Court. There is no jury trial for summary offenses--the judge makes a ruling based on the evidence presented. For more serious criminal charges, the Magisterial District Court holds a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to send the case to the Court of Common Pleas for trial.
For you as a defendant, this means if you are summoned to Monroe County Magisterial District Court for a minor summary offense, the case will likely be resolved during your initial court appearance. If you're accused of a more serious misdemeanor or felony, you'll likely begin your case proceedings at Monroe County Magisterial Court, and unless your charges are dismissed, your case will then transfer to Monroe County Court of Common Pleas.
These courts do not have jury trials. The Magisterial Judge makes a decision based only on the evidence presented. The cases heard here are not public unless requested. The Court of Common Pleas is Monroe County's next tier. It hears both larger-dollar civil cases as well as more serious criminal cases. This court can lead to a criminal record. A jury is often required to decide whether a defendant is guilty.
If I Appear Before a Magisterial Judge on Charges, Will This Appear on My Public Record?
Most cases heard in Magisterial District Court are not included in the public record unless requested (in the sense that court testimony will not be transcribed unless requested). All cases heard in the Court of Common Pleas will be a matter of public record. However, that doesn't automatically mean there will be no public record if you appear before the Magisterial District Judge. Every case is recorded by the Magistrate to the Pennsylvania public docket. The Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies will also keep copies. If you are concerned about public records, you should consult an attorney to represent you at Monroe County Magistrate District Court to minimize the damage.
Will Being Arrested Result in My Having a Criminal Record?
Not necessarily. Your arrest will not result in a criminal record if your attorney successfully gets the charges dismissed (and you take the subsequent step to have the case expunged, for example). However, if you are convicted of any charge (or if you plead guilty), no matter how minor the offense, it will show up as part of your criminal record in Pennsylvania. These records are both public and searchable.
That said, recent changes in the law regarding the sealing of records may provide Pennsylvanians some relief when it comes to their criminal records. Many records are automatically sealed after a certain period, but it's important to emphasize that record sealing is not the same as expungement, and some records may remain visible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can assist you in navigating the legal system and reduce or prevent any potential negative consequences if you are concerned about criminal or court records. A good attorney can also help determine if you are eligible for expungement or record sealing.
I Have Received a Summons To Appear at the Monroe County Magisterial Court District Court. What Do I Do Next?
When you receive your summons to appear in Magisterial District Court, look it over carefully. It should tell you the date, time, and location of the hearing. You have to appear at this hearing, so be sure you show up. The citation will also tell you whether to bring any documentation with you. Make sure to arrive on time for court. You could be arrested if you miss your court appearance.
You should next contact a Pennsylvania defense attorney, preferably one with specific experience in front of Magisterial District Courts. An experienced attorney will meet with you, review your case, and help you develop a strong defense that will get you the best possible outcome.
Do I Really Need an Attorney To Represent Me in Magisterial District Court?
You can legally represent yourself pro se in almost all courts as long as you are not a minor or deemed mentally unfit. The Constitution guarantees you the right to have an attorney, but you're not required to do so. However, in almost all cases, acting as your own legal representative is not in your best interests--even before a minor court like Magisterial District Court. By not knowing your way around the court process, not knowing when to object or how to cross-examine witnesses, even minor offenses could lead to significant fines and jail time that you could have otherwise avoided with the help of an attorney. A good Pennsylvania defense attorney is someone who has the knowledge and experience to effectively defend your case—someone who is familiar with court procedures, who knows how to communicate with judges and attorneys. An experienced attorney gives you a much better chance to have your charges reduced or dropped or to negotiate reduced penalties.
My Charges Are Minor. Isn't It Just Easier To Plead Guilty?
Although it might seem easier to plead guilty and be done with it, it is unlikely to be beneficial. Don't assume that because Monroe County Magisterial Court is a so-called “minor court,” your penalties will be minimal. Any plea of guilty will result in a conviction that appears on your criminal record. Even if you are convicted for minor non-traffic or other offenses, it could still lead to significant fines and/or jail sentences. These convictions could ultimately affect your ability to find work, find a place to live, work with seniors and children, etc. A skilled attorney can increase your chances for a positive outcome and help you avoid these negative outcomes.
What Happens During a Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate District Court?
At the appointed time of your hearing, you and your attorney will present yourselves before the judge along with the prosecutors, the officer of the arrest, and/or the complainant. This hearing is not a trial and will not be heard by a jury. The prosecutors will present their evidence against you, and your attorney will present evidence in your defense. Your attorney may also be able to cross-examine witnesses. After the parties have presented their cases and witnesses have been questioned, the Monroe County Magistrate District Judge will decide if there is enough evidence to warrant a trial. If the judge deems that there is insufficient evidence, the charges may be dropped. Otherwise, the case will be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas for a trial.
What Is the ARD Program for Summary Offenses? Could It Help Me?
Pennsylvania's Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program is designed to help first-time offenders with no prior convictions. To determine your eligibility for the ARD program, you must apply to the District Attorney's Office. Once you've been granted approval by the DA, you'll have to fulfill a series of requirements over a certain period of time, which may include community service, rehab, probation, and possibly fines. After the completion of this program, your charges will be withdrawn by the prosecution, and you can request to have your record expunged.
The ARD program is an option for some, but it is not a “get out jail free” card. Although you are not pleading guilty by entering the ARD program, resolving your case via ARD could have a significant impact on your future. Additionally, by entering the program, you waive your right to a hearing to possibly have the charges dismissed on more traditional grounds, such as for lack of evidence or lack of prosecution.
Completing an ARD program can be slow and tedious, and it is not for everyone. Always consult with an experienced Monroe County criminal defense attorney to determine whether this is the best course of action for you.
To Whom Can I Turn for Assistance if I Am Summoned to the Monroe County Magisterial District Court?
The first person you should call when you receive your summons is an attorney with experience in the court where you are being summoned. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have successfully represented countless clients in Pennsylvania's Magisterial District Courts, including in Monroe County. Attorney Lento and his team have a deep understanding of the court's functioning and is able to communicate and negotiate effectively with judges as well as the prosecution. Take steps now to protect your rights and avoid unnecessary jail or fines. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to schedule a case evaluation.