Appear at the preliminary hearing and request a continuance so that you can apply to the public defender. Do not try to do this alone without representation.
You need not plea at a preliminary hearing. Retain an attorney, if you cannot afford one request a public defender
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You should get a public defender
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I agree with the advice regarding the public defender. However, the Court will likely deny or at least admonish you for the request. In Lancaster County, the MDJ's office sends out a very specific notice regarding the importance of obtaining counsel within 72 hours after receiving notice. If you failed to do so prior to the preliminary hearing, the Court will not be happy.
You do not plead at a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is for the purpose of determining a prima facie case. For retail theft, the Court must find some evidence that you took merchandise from a retail store without paying. This does not equate to a finding of guilt. There are a number of defenses or alternatives that may be available at the Court of Common Pleas.
Regardless of the outcome of the preliminary hearing, you MUST obtain counsel at the Court of Common Pleas. The new rules of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas are difficult enough for the lawyers to understand, proceeding on your own would be substantially detrimental. You will need to go to the Bail Administration office on the third floor of the Courthouse to apply.
You should request a public defender and ask that the hearing be continued. The judge may give you some grief for not doing this sooner, but don't let that discourage you. In PA, a third retail theft, regardless of the amount involved, is a third-degree felony. You need representation.
If you can't afford to hire an attorney you need to apply for a public defender before you go to your preliminary hearing. If this is your 3rd retail theft in a year you could be looking at serious consequences if found guilty again. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney to assist you at every stage of court.