There are 14 Magisterial District Courts in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, and they're overseen by magisterial judges who are elected and serve for six years. If you're received a notice in the mail or a summons that you have to appear before a Northampton Magisterial District Court, you may be wondering what your next steps should be. Getting a summons to appear in court can be terrifying for just about anyone but arriving at the court on the appointed day with the information you need to protect yourself can make all of the difference in the outcome of your case. We've put together some of the information you need to know to help you deal with the process with confidence.
What Does the Northampton County Magisterial District Court Do?
Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial system is the system that runs the state's court system. It's made up of seven tiers, and the Magisterial Court is located at the lowest level. When most defendants enter the Pennsylvania court system for the first time, they enter the system at the Magistrates' Court level. Magisterial District judges take care of cases like traffic cases, minor criminal cases, or civil cases that concern amounts that are up to $12,000. These courts are also in charge of conducting preliminary hearings for both felony and misdemeanor cases. They'll hear these cases and determine if the cases should simply be dismissed or if they should be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas, the next rung on the Pennsylvania court system ladder. Magisterial Courts also determine if bail should be given in certain cases. If they do decide that bail is warranted, they set the amount.
How Does the Court of Common Pleas Differ from the Northampton County Magisterial Court?
As mentioned above, the Court of Common Pleas is the general trial court that the magisterial court sends cases to if they deem them serious enough to move forward. The Common Pleas Court is a trial court, and cases can be decided by a jury or by a judge. These courts hear appeals from minor courts like the Magistrates' Court, and they also handle matters regarding children and families.
What Should I Do Now That I've Been Summoned to Appear in Northampton County Magisterial District Court?
From the moment that you receive your summons to appear in Magisterial District Court, you need to treat the situation with the utmost seriousness. Before you do anything else, place the date in your calendar and set reminders so that you remember to arrive in Court on time on the appointed day. Don't ever make the assumption that because the Magisterial Court is considered one of the lower courts that you don't have to take it seriously. You need to take it very seriously. If, for whatever reason, you don't arrive on the appointed day, you could actually end up being arrested.
This is the moment where you need to reach out to a Pennsylvania defense attorney who has experience dealing with the Magistrates' Court. These courts have their own judges, a very specific way of doing things, and certain expectations that need to be met. As a regular citizen, you won't know this information. Experienced Pennsylvania defense lawyers do have this information and are ready to represent you armed with years of knowledge. Once you hire an attorney, you can go over the facts of your case together and work out a game plan so that you're fully prepared on the day of the court date to present yourself in the best way possible.
Do I Even Really Need an Attorney for a Magisterial District Court Date?
The 6th Amendment of the US Constitution states that criminal defendants have the right to counsel, but they don't have to use an attorney if they'd prefer to represent themselves. In these cases, judges just need to determine if the defendant is in the right psychological state to make that decision.
When it comes to Magisterial District Court, you're not required to have an attorney at all. This causes some people to believe that they don't need to hire one. They may not take it seriously because they assume it's “just” Magistrates' Court, so “what's the worst that can happen to me?” Many of these people find out the hard way that plenty of not-so-great things can happen to them if they show up to Magistrates' Court without an attorney.
- They won't know the ins and outs of the Magistrates' Court system, leaving them at a disadvantage when key motions and decisions are made.
- They won't know if they should have witnesses, or they won't know how to question witnesses in a way that the court will allow.
- They won't have information about the judges who will be hearing their case, putting them in a position to be unprepared when they have to go before the court.
- They won't be aware of situations where they can object to a line of questioning or inquiry by the prosecution. This could end up weakening their case.
- They won't have the benefit of having a lawyer who could be skilled enough to have their charges dropped or reduced.
All of the above could jeopardize your case and put you in a position where you end up facing jail time or having to pay big fines. Your best defense against all of this is to hire an attorney who can help you navigate this part of the court system for you so that you have a better chance of having the outcome you want.
Can I Just Plead Guilty?
You may wonder if it simply makes sense to plead guilty if you've been summoned to appear in Magistrates' Court. You may assume that since it's Magistrates' Court, any penalties imposed on you won't be so bad. You write it off as simply taking a loss, and you'll move on. Simple? No.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned above, it's true that Magisterial Court handles a lot of misdemeanors and low-level crimes, but some of those crimes carry jail time or heft crimes. If you decide to plead guilty, you may not simply be looking at a fine. You may actually get to the point where you're looking at jail time, depending on the type of charge that you have.
Even if there is no jail time involved, a guilty conviction is a guilty conviction. With nothing more than your name, people could access your conviction record immediately. This could end up preventing you from getting certain jobs, moving into certain areas, or even being around children and the elderly. It's simply not worth it to assume that there will be no long-term consequences for simply pleading guilty. It's in your best interest to work with a lawyer who will present your case in the best way so that you have a chance of moving forward without incurring any long-term negative effects on your life.
What's Going to Happen at the Preliminary Hearing?
When you get to the preliminary hearing, you're going to arrive with your attorney. The prosecution and the arresting officer (if there is one) or the complainant will also arrive. There is no jury trial in Magistrates' Court, so all cases will be heard in front of the judge. When the hearing begins, the prosecution will begin by presenting the evidence against you. At that point, your attorney will have an opportunity to respond to that evidence. The prosecution may or may not decide to call witnesses, and if they do, your attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses.
When all of the information has been input, it's time for the Magistrate Judge to make a decision. At this point, they'll need to figure out if there's enough evidence for the case to move forward or if they simply need to drop the charges and dismiss the case. For more serious crimes, they may also decide if bail should be set. If they decide that the case should move forward to trial, it will then be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas.
Who Should I Call for Help If I'm Scheduled to Appear in Northampton Magistrate's Court?
Being summoned to Magistrates' Court is no small matter. You need an attorney with experience working with this type of court and knows exactly how to present your case in the best way. Not having an attorney on your side could put you in a situation where you're dealing with the aftermath for years to come.
Joseph Lento and the entire Lento team are fully prepared to do what they need to do to prepare you for your appearance at Northampton District Magisterial Court. They know the ins and outs of the system, and they have the experience that you'll need to prepare the best defense. Don't go into the system alone. Give the Lento team a call at 888-535-3686 so that you can get to work preparing for your case.