There are 30 Magisterial District Courts located throughout Montgomery County, PA, each of which is presided over by an elected magisterial judge. If you are summoned or scheduled to appear in a Magisterial Court in Montgomery County, you may be facing some apprehension or uncertainty as to what to do. The following information should give you a better understanding of these courts, what to expect, and how to respond if you are arrested, ticketed, or summoned to court.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
In the Pennsylvania court system, Magisterial District Courts (along with the Philadelphia Municipal Court) are considered “minor courts”—the first line of defense in the court system. Magisterial Courts mainly deal with lower-level issues such as summary offenses, municipal code violations (e.g., traffic citations), landlord-tenant disputes, and civil suits below $12,000. Magisterial Courts are also used for preliminary hearings and arraignments for misdemeanors and felony charges before they are sent to the Court of Common Pleas.
What's the Difference Between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
Magisterial Courts deal with small claims, minor disputes, and summary offenses (e.g., disorderly conduct, public intoxication, loitering, harassment), as well as preliminary hearings for more significant criminal cases. The Court of Common Pleas is a trial court for more serious criminal offenses and larger civil cases, which are often heard in front of a jury. Additionally, the Magisterial Court is not a “court of record,” meaning court proceedings won't be entered into the permanent public record via a court reporter unless it is specifically requested.
People in general, but especially those who are concerned about having a criminal record must be mindful that this does not mean, however, that there will not be a record created recording anything and everything that happened regarding the charges as all information related to the case will be reflected on the Pennsylvania public court dockets and records will also be maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and all other applicable law enforcement, government, and court agencies. It simply means that court proceedings themselves in the sense of what is stated in court is not transcribed by a court reporter in a Pennsylvania county District Court because there generally is not a court reporter (stenographer) unless specifically requested or provided for by the court or attorneys.
I've Been Summoned to Appear in Montgomery County Magisterial District Court. What Should I Do Next?
Make a note of the date and time on your summons when you are scheduled to appear, and make sure you appear on that date. If you fail to appear, a warrant may be issued for your arrest. Also, before your court date, reach out to an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney for a case evaluation. The attorney can review the facts concerning your case and help you determine a course of action that will help you achieve the best outcome.
Do I Need to Hire an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
You technically have the right to represent yourself in Magisterial Court, but it is never recommended. Your lack of experience or understanding of the workings of the courts, or in talking with attorneys or the judge, can work against you. A skilled defense attorney may be able to have charges reduced or dismissed. On your own, you may end up paying fines or even serving jail time unnecessarily—penalties you might have avoided otherwise.
Can't I Just Plead Guilty and Get It Over With?
Don't let the term “minor court” fool you. Magisterial Court is the lowest court in the hierarchy, but the long-term impacts of any court case on your life can be significant. If you are facing low-level summary charges, you might be tempted to represent yourself in court or just plead guilty to put it behind you. However, conviction even for a summary offense can land you fines, jail time, and the creation of a criminal record, which may affect your ability to get hired for certain jobs or living in certain places. A Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney with experience in Montgomery Magisterial Court cases can give you essential advice and provide effective representation improving your chances for a positive outcome, including reduced or dismissed charges.
Does Being Arrested Affect My Criminal Record?
Not in and of itself. If your attorney can successfully get the charges dismissed in Magistrate District Court, they will not appear on your record. However, if you plead guilty or are convicted even of summary charges, that conviction will create a criminal record in your name.
What Happens at My Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate Court?
The purpose of a preliminary hearing (for misdemeanors and felony charges) is for the magisterial judge to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for the charges against you to “bind over” your case to the Court of Common Pleas for trial. At the preliminary hearing, you'll appear with your attorney before the judge, along with the prosecutors and the arresting officer. This is not a trial, and there will be no jury present. This is just the first hearing. The prosecutors will present their evidence, and may or may not call witnesses. Your attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses and present opposing evidence on your behalf. If the judge determines there is insufficient evidence for the case to go to trial, they will dismiss the case, and you will be free to go. If not, the judge will bind over the case for trial.
Can I Participate in the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?
If this is your first criminal offense and you have no prior convictions, you may be eligible for the Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program. You apply for ARD by written application to the District Attorney's office, waiving your right to a preliminary hearing and arraignment (accepting ARD is effectively a “guilty” plea) and bypassing Magisterial Court. If approved, you'll follow a prescribed course of action, which is typically probation, fines, and community service. When you've completed ARD requirements, you may petition to have your criminal record expunged.
ARD is not right for everyone, and the particulate circumstances at hand will determine if ARD will be an appropriate option. Your attorney can better advise you of your options.
Additionally, for people facing summary offenses and who are trying to avoid a record, steps can potentially be taken to at the District Court level to negotiate a constructive resolution that can allow the case to be dismissed or withdrawn at the applicable time and to forego the ARD process which, despite its many benefits for a first-time offender, can be a long and burdensome process in some respects. An experienced attorney will let you know if a constructive resolution can possibly be had based on the circumstances of your case and other considerations.
Who Can I Call for Help If I am Summoned to Magistrate District Court in Montgomery County, PA?
The first person you should call, preferably as soon as you receive the summons, is a skilled criminal defense attorney with experience in Magisterial Court cases. The Lento Law Firm has successfully represented many clients in Montgomery County Magisterial District Courts. They understand what's involved in these court cases, and they take a compassionate approach to educating clients on the process while developing a vigorous defense. Call us today at 888-535-3686 for a case evaluation.