In Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, there are four Magisterial District Courts, and an individual elected judge oversees each institution. Being asked to appear in court – whether you have been officially notified or have a scheduled hearing – can create a lot of anxiety and raise a lot of questions, particularly for first-time offenders. Before getting started on your legal journey, it's smart to prepare yourself by learning basic information about the court's purpose, how to plead, and why and when to hire an attorney. Being involved with the legal system is no fun, but knowledge is power – and it can also help ease your mind.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
In Pennsylvania, the judicial system consists of different tiers, with the Magisterial District Court representing the lowest tier of the system. If you are a first-time offender, this is where you are most likely to interact with the judicial system. Judges in Magisterial District Courts typically hear cases regarding traffic citations, minor criminal offenses, and civil lawsuits involving less than $12,000. Preliminary hearings and indictments for misdemeanors and felonies may also be held at Magisterial Courts before these cases are sent to the Court of Common Pleas.
Magisterial District Court vs. Court of Common Pleas
If you're heading to court for a small claim, a minor lawsuit, or a non-traffic citation – such as harassment or low-level shoplifting – you'll likely end up at a Magisterial District Court. Because cases here are typically minor, in most cases, they are punishable by a fine instead of jail time, and they are not a matter of public record unless requested. By contrast, at the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas, trials may be held over civil or criminal matters. These cases are a matter of public record and typically require the assistance of a jury to reach a verdict.
Here's something important to remember, particularly if you're like most people and are concerned about having a criminal record: Although cases heard at the Magisterial District Court aren't usually part of the permanent public record, a record does still exist within the Pennsylvania public court docket. Law enforcement agencies such as the Pennsylvania State Police will have access to copies of these records, which can be problematic for anyone concerned about keeping their record free of criminal activity.
I've Been Summoned to Appear in Northumberland County Magisterial District Court – What's Next?
If you receive a summons from Northumberland County Magisterial District Court, don't panic – following some simple guidelines can help your visit go as smoothly as possible, though it is incredibly important to be prepared. First, make sure you carefully record the date and time of your appearance and show up with plenty of time to spare. Account for how long it will take to drive there, park your car, and get where you need to be. If you accidentally miss your appearance, a warrant may be issued for your arrest. At this point, it is time to hire an attorney who can review your case, craft a solid defense, and help alleviate negative impacts going forward.
Do I Need an Attorney at Magisterial District Court?
In most courts across the country, hiring an attorney is not a requirement. The Sixth Amendment states that criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, but they also have the option to represent themselves. The same is true in Magisterial Court – as long as the judge deems the defendant capable of self-representation – meaning they are not a minor or found to be of unsound mind or infirm in some way – the case can proceed without legal counsel (also called pro se). In civil suits, defendants are not guaranteed legal counsel and may choose to represent themselves as well.
Here's the catch: While it may be possible to head to Magisterial District Court without an attorney, it's probably not smart. If you want the best shot at achieving a favorable outcome in your case, you'll want an experienced defense attorney on your side. With their wealth of expertise, attorneys know things ordinary people do not, such as how the court operates (which – let's face it – can be complicated), how to effectively communicate with other attorneys and judges, and when to speak up in a client's defense. In some cases, an attorney may be able to get charges reduced or even dropped, all because they knew the right questions to ask and procedures to follow.
Going it alone and representing yourself seems like even less of a viable option when you consider the consequences. Knowing when to object to something during a hearing, how to contact possible witnesses that may help with your defense, and how to ask questions and perform a cross-examination in court are essential skills that will make a positive outcome in your case more likely. Without this knowledge and experience, you may wind up spending unnecessary time in jail or paying hefty fines that will eat up a big chunk of your income or savings. To have the best shot at avoiding life-altering consequences, you need to hire an attorney before you head to court.
Why Shouldn't I Just Plead Guilty?
Within the Pennsylvania legal system, Northumberland County Magisterial District Court may be considered “minor,” but make no mistake – the consequences are still very real, and they are no less severe and potentially life-changing than those issued by the Court of Common Pleas. Pleading guilty to any case in court can have a long-lasting negative impact on your future, including fines and jail time. The conviction also remains in your permanent criminal record, which can make it more difficult to get a job or find a desirable place to live. If you're thinking about pleading guilty in Magisterial District Court, think again. Instead, it's time to get in touch with an experienced attorney and start planning your defense.
Does Being Arrested Affect My Criminal Record?
In and of itself, being arrested doesn't impact your criminal record – and it is possible that your attorney may be able to have your charges dismissed. However, pleading guilty or being convicted of an offense will appear on your permanent record – and this includes traffic offenses. In Pennsylvania, these records are publicly accessible and easily searchable using someone's name, meaning anyone from your boss to your next-door neighbor can find them.
While it is true that Pennsylvania law automatically seals some records after a designated period of time, and expungement (or having your record cleared) may be an option in certain cases, the road to a promising future is always easiest and smoothest if your record remains free of criminal charges in the first place. If you're worried about losing opportunities for education, employment, or housing, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you figure out the legal system, build a solid defense, and ultimately lessen the negative consequences you will face now and going forward.
What Happens During a Preliminary Hearing?
During your preliminary hearing at Northumberland County District Magistrate Court, you will appear before the judge along with your attorney, the prosecution, and the arresting officer or complainant. The purpose of this hearing is to allow the prosecution to present their evidence against you and give your attorney the chance to argue in your defense. The prosecution may also introduce witnesses at this time, and your attorney will be allowed to cross-examine them. In the vast majority of cases, the defendant does not testify at the preliminary trial.
Ultimately, the goal of this preliminary process is for the Northumberland County Magistrate to determine whether enough evidence exists to require the defendant to stand trial – as well as whether a case should be sent to the Court of Common Pleas instead. In some cases, the magistrate may decide there is not enough evidence for a trial, and the charges against the defendant may be dropped.
Can I Participate in the ARD Program?
If you're a first-time offender with no prior convictions, Pennsylvania's Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program might be a good fit for you. This program allows individuals to waive the right to a preliminary hearing by effectively accepting a guilty plea, thereby avoiding prosecution and Magisterial District Court entirely. The goal of the program is to encourage offenders to move on with their lives following the completion of a rehabilitative program, with the eventual possibility of charges being dismissed or arrest records expunged. If you're approved for the ARD program, you will likely face consequences such as probation, fines, and community service.
However, because the ARD program involves accepting a guilty plea, it can still have a major impact on your future. Before making any decisions, you'll want to sit down with an attorney to examine all possible outcomes. In some cases, the ARD program might not be the best way to avoid a criminal record, and your attorney may be able to get your case dropped before it ever goes to court. The bottom line: You won't know the best way forward until you talk to an attorney, and your future is too valuable to risk with uncertain choices.
Who Should I Call for Help After Being Summoned to Northumberland County Magisterial District Court?
If you've been summoned to Northumberland County Magisterial District Court, don't wait any longer – now is the time to call an attorney. The Lento Law Firm has years of experience representing many clients in Northumberland County Magisterial District Courts and can help you with your defense. Joseph D. Lento and his legal team have deep knowledge about how the Pennsylvania court system operates, and they will work ceaselessly to negotiate with judges and the prosecution to help you mitigate – and possibly avoid – burdensome fines or jail time. Call 888-535-3686 or contact us online today to start building your defense.