There are 16 Magisterial District Courts in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Each of which is overseen by an individual elected magisterial judge. If you are notified that you must appear in court or have scheduled a hearing in a Magisterial District Court in Luzerne County, you may not know what to do. You should be aware of the basic facts about a court appearance. These are summarized below. We can guide you through this complex process.
What Is Magisterial District Court?
Pennsylvania divides its Unified Judicial system into different tiers. The Magisterial District Court is the lowest tier of the state's court system and where most first-time offenders encounter the judicial system. Magisterial District Judges supervise matters such as traffic citations, minor criminal cases, and civil lawsuits, with each such matter consisting of amounts in question of less than $12,000. Magisterial Courts will also supervise supplementary matters like preliminary hearings and indictments for misdemeanors as well as felonies before the cases are sent up to the Court of Common Pleas. Although the Magisterial District Court is the lowest tier of the state's court system, it handles serious legal matters that you need to address in a careful manner.
What is the Difference Between Magisterial District Court and the Court of Common Pleas?
Magisterial District Courts oversee small claims, minor lawsuits, and non-traffic citations such as harassment and low-level shoplifting, where the conviction is usually a fine rather than incarceration. Cases heard here are not a matter of public record unless that is specifically requested. In comparison, the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County is a trial court where the larger civil and criminal cases are heard and recorded into the public record. These Common Pleas cases usually require a jury to decide the innocence or guilt of the defendant.
A criminal record, whatever the court, is a serious matter. You need, therefore, to be aware that matters with the Magisterial District Court may become public, even though the Magisterial District Court does not usually release court reporter records into the permanent public record. The magistrate will record into the court docket the actions and motions relating to the case. However, the Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies will maintain copies of these records.
What Should You Do if You Have Been Summoned to Appear in Luzerne County Magisterial District Court?
What should you do if you receive your summons, or the court notifies you that you have to appear in a Luzerne County Magisterial District Court? First, note the date and time specified. Second, arrive early. You do not want to miss the appearance. If you do miss your court appearance, whatever the reason, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. Yes, you can be arrested in you miss your court appointment. At this point, you should contact an experienced Pennsylvania defense attorney. Such an attorney should set up a conference with you to review your case, review the facts concerning your matter, and begin to build an effective defense that will vigorously seek to mitigate the potential legal challenges you may otherwise experience.
Do You Need to Hire an Attorney for Magisterial District Court?
In Magisterial Court, you are not required have to hire an attorney. Actually, in most courts across the country, you do are not required to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants you the right to a lawyer who will work diligently on your behalf to build a vigorous defense, but you are not required to accept such an offer. If the judge decides that you are of sound mind (i.e., not a minor or found infirm in some way), you can represent yourself in many instances. This is called “pro se.” You do not have a right to legal counsel in civil suits, so you are more easily able to represent yourself without the approval of the magistrate.
Even though you may be able to represent yourself, you should realize that course of action is not in your best interest. Attorneys are highly skilled professionals with the knowledge and experience to defend your case. They have experience with the internal practices of the courts, and they know how to speak to attorneys or the judge. They also know when to interject on your behalf. An experienced attorney may be able to negotiate a reduction or dismissal of the charges. If you represent yourself, you may not know when to object, how to notify witnesses, or what is acceptable questioning for your witness on the first round of questioning vs. cross-examination. You may serve jail time or pay hefty that could have been avoided. The question to ask is, “Is something at stake?” If so, you need an experienced attorney.
Can You Plead Guilty to End Your Problems?
You need to discuss your case with an experienced attorney. If you think it is easier to plead guilty after receiving your summons to a Magisterial District Court. Just because Pennsylvania refers to Luzerne County Magisterial Court as a “minor court,” you need to be aware of the consequences of your decision. The long-term effects of pleading guilty to any case in any court can be detrimental to a serious extent. If you plead guilty, you are knowingly agreeing to a conviction against yourself. Criminal case convictions are recorded in your permanent criminal record. A conviction for civil offenses or non-traffic offenses can still lead to significant fines or incarceration. Additionally, convictions can affect your ability to get a new job, work with children or seniors, or even where you reside. An experienced attorney can counsel you to achieve the most positive possible outcome.
Does an Arrest Affect Your Criminal Record?
Being arrested does not necessarily affect your criminal record. If your attorney can have the charges dismissed, they will not appear on your criminal record. But, if you plead guilty or are convicted, even of traffic offenses, they will appear on your record. In Pennsylvania, your full name is the only piece of information needed to search for a criminal record.
If you have any concerns about the existence of court or criminal records, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to guide and navigate the court process so as to avoid or minimize the potential consequences related to the charges. This is particularly the case for those concerned about school and educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and professional licensing. Record sealing is not the same as expungement. A defendant should generally seek an expungement whenever possible.
What Happens at Your Preliminary Hearing?
At the preliminary hearing, you and your attorney, the prosecution, and the arresting officer and/or complainant will appear before the judge. Because this is not a trial, the jury will not be present. The prosecution will present their evidence against you, and your attorney will present evidence in your defense. At this point, the prosecution may also present witnesses, which your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine.
Although not a perfect analogy, a preliminary hearing is basically the trial before the trial (although the defendant will, in almost all instances, not testify at a preliminary hearing). At this event, the Luzerne County Magistrate will decide whether there is enough evidence to compel the defendant to stand trial. The magistrate will also determine if the defendant's case should be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. If the magistrate decides there is not enough evidence to compel the defendant to stand trial, your charges may be dropped altogether.
Can You Participate in the ARD Program for Summary Offenses?
In Pennsylvania, there is a program for first-time offenders with no prior convictions. The Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program allows these individuals to waive their right to a preliminary hearing and prosecution and avoid Magisterial Court altogether. If you participate in the ARD program, you are effectively accepting a guilty plea. This program is not a “get out of jail free card.” The ARD program still has a significant effect on your future, which is why it is important to discuss all the outcomes of your summons with an experienced attorney who can advise you of the best possible options.
To participate in the ARD program, you need to apply to the District Attorney's Office. If the DA approves you for the program, you will have to follow a specific list of steps, including probation, fines, and community service.
The ARD program can be a slow and extended process. It may or may not be for you. This is the case If you are facing summary offenses - loitering, shoplifting, or another minor non-traffic crime – and you hope to avoid a criminal record.
Instead, your attorney might be able to negotiate a more positive outcome to have your case dismissed or withdrawn at the preliminary hearing level rather than having the case proceed to the Court of Common Pleas. Either way, an experienced Luzerne County attorney will advise you on your best course of action.
Who Can You Call for Help if You are Summoned to Magistrate District Court?
When you receive your summons, the first person you should call is an experienced attorney who advises clients on such matters in the relevant court. The Lento Law Firm has extensive experience representing many clients in Luzerne County Magisterial District Courts. Joseph D. Lento and his team know the Magisterial Court's practices and the best manner in which to communicate and negotiate with the judges and prosecution. They will work vigorously to represent you so that you avoid any unnecessary fines or incarceration. You can contact us at 888-535-3686 today to schedule an evaluation of your case. Do not try to navigate these murky waters alone. The Lento Law Firm can advise you.