If you've received a notice to appear for a hearing or other matter before a Magisterial District Court, you may undoubtedly be worried about what this means and what will happen. Do you need an attorney? Will you go to jail? Knowing more about York County's magisterial courts and how they work can prepare you for your hearing and give you more information about what might happen. So, we've answered some of the most common questions our clients have about Magisterial District Court to help.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
Pennsylvania's state court system falls into varying tiers. The Magisterial District Courts make up the first tier of the state's courts, and this is the court where most first-time offenders will face a judge. York County, Pennsylvania has 19 Magisterial District Courts, with an elected magistrate judge heading up each district court.
Magisterial District Judges handle lighter matters such as traffic citations, minor criminal cases involving summary offenses, and civil lawsuits for less than $12,000. Magisterial District Courts also hear preliminary matters in civil and criminal cases, including preliminary hearings and motions practice in civil suits. The Magisterial Court also hears preliminary hearing for both misdemeanors and felonies in criminal cases before the cases can proceed to the Court of Common Pleas.
What's the Difference Between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
Magisterial District Courts in York County handle smaller cases, generally from start to finish, such as:
- Civil lawsuits for under $12,000
- Small claims
- Traffic citations
- Minor criminal matters involving summary offenses
The Magistrate Judge's criminal docket will usually include matters where the conviction is a fine rather than jail time, such as harassment, retail theft, shoplifting, or trespassing.
The cases in Magisterial Court won't be a matter of public record unless specifically requested, meaning that the court won't include a court reporter's notes as part of the case record. However, if you're worried about your criminal record, not having the court reporter's trial record doesn't mean that you won't have a criminal record. The procedural record and the court's verdict will be a matter of public record. Moreover, the Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies will also have these records.
The Court of Common Pleas in York County is a trial court handling weightier matters, including more complex civil and criminal cases involving more money or the possibility of jail time. In the Court of Common Pleas, the defendant in criminal cases and the parties in civil cases can request a jury verdict, and the trial will be a matter of public record. Before a criminal case involving misdemeanors or felonies reaches the Court of Common Pleas, a preliminary hearing will take place at the Magisterial Court in almost all instances.
I've Been Summoned to Appear in York County Magisterial District Court. What Do I Do Next?
If you get a summons or a notice of hearing to appear in a York County Magisterial District Court, note the date and time of the hearing or appearance. Be sure to arrive early, with plenty of time to find parking if necessary. If you miss your hearing, the court could issue a warrant for your arrest. It's also a good idea to contact an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to discuss your case and your options and begin to build a defense. If needed, your attorney can accompany you to court and speak on your behalf.
Do I Need to Hire an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
Most courts in the U.S. won't require you to hire an attorney. The same holds in a York County Magisterial Court. Technically you can represent yourself. However, you do have the right to have an attorney under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a criminal trial. A lawyer has a duty to work diligently in your best interest and to help you build the best possible defense. You don't have a right to a lawyer in a civil matter for damages or other relief. However, it's a good idea to hire one.
It's important to remember that court hearings and trials in the Magisterial District Court are still formal proceedings. The court will expect you to comply with the court rules and the rules of evidence. If you don't have legal training, it can be challenging to successfully navigate a trial or hearing, challenge evidence against you, and introduce your own evidence and witnesses. An experienced criminal lawyer can:
- Negotiate with the prosecutor and/or police officer to drop or reduce your charges
- Help build a strong defense
- Interview witnesses and investigate the criminal matter
- Review the evidence against you
- Subpoena witnesses for trial
- Bring preliminary motions on your behalf to dismiss evidence or charges
- Represent you at trial, introducing witnesses and evidence and cross-examining the prosecution's witnesses
Questioning or cross-examining a witness on the stand isn't as easy as they make it look on TV. Your lawyer will have a deep understanding of admissible testimony and evidence, knowing when and how to object and preserve objections for possible appeals. Your attorney will also understand how the court system works, what will happen at every step in the process, and guide you to the best possible result. You don't want to end up with an unnecessary criminal conviction, fines, or jail time.
Can't I Just Plead Guilty and Get it Over With?
It's never a good idea to plead guilty to a criminal charge without first discussing your case with an experienced Pennsylvania attorney. Even a “minor” criminal charge can end in a criminal record if the court convicts you or you plead guilty. The long-term consequences of a criminal record can affect your education, career, ability to work in finance, obtain a security clearance, or obtain a professional license. A criminal record could also affect your personal life, including child custody and visitation matters. You could also end up facing jail time or hefty fines because of a guilty plea in Magisterial District Court. Hiring an experienced criminal attorney can give you the best possible chance at a successful outcome for your case.
Does Being Arrested Affect My Criminal Record?
An arrest won't necessarily appear on your “criminal record". If your attorney can have the court dismiss your charges, your arrest won't appear on a criminal record. However, if you plead guilty to any criminal offense, even a traffic citation, it will end up and remain on Pennsylvania public court dockets. These records are public and easily searchable online. In Pennsylvania, someone only needs a defendant's full name to search for a criminal or public record.
Pennsylvania laws on record sealing and expungement have progressed over the last few years. In some cases, the state automatically seals criminal records after a designated period. However, sealed or expunged records can still be an issue for some professional licenses in education, finance, medicine, or the law. Moreover, even if expunged or sealed, having a record can affect applications to law enforcement agencies, the military, and security clearances. An experienced criminal attorney can advise you of your options to clear your record before or after a conviction, as well as navigate the sealing or expungement process on your behalf if necessary.
What Happens at My Preliminary Hearing at Magistrate Court?
For criminal cases that are serious enough to result in jail time, rather than simply a fine, the case will first go to the York County Magisterial District Court for a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is a hearing before your trial that helps the court determine whether there's enough evidence against you to bring your case to trial. The prosecution will present the evidence against you and may also introduce witnesses. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine these witnesses, challenge the evidence, and present some evidence in your defense. It is unlikely that your attorney will have you testify at the preliminary hearing, but it is a good chance to see the state's case against you in preparation for your trial.
If the court finds the evidence is insufficient, they may dismiss the case at this stage. Your best chance for a dismissal lies with an experienced criminal defense attorney. If the York County Magistrate decides that there is enough evidence, the court will transfer the case to the York County Court of Common Pleas.
Can I Participate in the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?
First-time offenders in Pennsylvania with no prior convictions may have unique options when charged with summary offenses. In Pennsylvania, a “summary offense” is typically less serious than a misdemeanor, although certain summary offenses come with their own unique concerns depending on the nature of the charge. A summary offense is often known as a non-traffic citation. The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program allows some defendants to waive their preliminary hearing and trial rights, circumventing Magisterial District Court. ARD is usually reserved for defendants facing misdemeanor, or even felony offenses, but in some instances the District Attorney's Office may consider a defendant charged with summary offenses for some kind of diversionary program similar to ARD, whether formal or informal in nature.
With acceptance into the ARD program, although you do not enter a guilty plea, you can be under a period of supervision for up to two years, similar to probation. During your supervisory period, you will complete community service and complete drug or alcohol treatment if needed. If you fail to complete the ARD requirements, the state will remove you from the program and schedule your original charges for trial.
ARD program applicants generally should be first-time offenders with no prior ARD dispositions and no prior criminal convictions in the last ten years. However, the district attorney may not accept everyone applying to the program. Moreover, an experienced criminal attorney may be able to negotiate a better disposition on your behalf. It's essential that you consult an attorney before applying to the ARD program.
Who Can I Call for Help if I am Summoned to Magistrate District Court in York County, Pennsylvania?
If you receive a summons from the York County Magisterial Court, you should call an experienced criminal attorney. The Lento Law Firm has represented York County residents for years, and they can help you too. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team can work aggressively to protect your rights. Give them a call at 888-535-3686 to schedule your case evaluation today.