Five Stages of the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice Process
Most people who are arrested for the first time don’t know what the process is that awaits them. If you are charged with a misdemeanor or felony in Pennsylvania, your case will have five guaranteed court dates while awaiting trial. The most surprising thing to me, as a criminal defense attorney, is the amount of people who have been through the system before, and yet still do not know what court dates they have guaranteed before them. I do not fault the Defendant/Client at all. It is a complicated system. I fault prior defense attorneys. Many defense attorneys do not take the time to explain to their client the five guaranteed court dates in Pennsylvania that are scheduled prior to (and including) your trial. So, in order to help those facing criminal charges, here are the five court dates you will face before trial, if you have a case in Allegheny County or Pennsylvania in general:
- Preliminary Arraignment
- Preliminary Hearing
- Formal Arraignment
- Pre-Trial Conference
You are generally guaranteed some version of the five dates I have listed above, even though some counties call them different things, and sometimes they are combined. I will explain each one in detail below.
Preliminary ArraignmentCommonly known as *seeing the judge* for the first time, this is your first guaranteed court date. If you are arrested and held in jail, this date is very important. Essentially, it is the first time you appear before the judge. It is at this time that a Magistrate Judge must communicate to you the charges that you are facing. She will read them to you orally, and she will also set bail. This is what makes this date important. If you are being held in jail, it is at this time that the judge will do a risk analysis and set your bail. Thus, if the judge decides that you are not a recurrent crime risk or a flight risk, you may be released when she sets your bail as non-monetary conditions. If the judge finds some risk is involved, she will set a monetary bail. Then, after the preliminary arraignment, you can post your bond and possibly get released. If the police did not detain you upon arrest, you may not have your preliminary arraignment until your preliminary hearing is scheduled. If that is the case, you were likely not viewed as a risk for recurrent crime or flight. The preliminary arraignment must be held within 72 hours if you are in jail and sometimes it is done via video. It can be very useful to have an attorney from the Pittsburgh Criminal Law Group present for the preliminary arraignment. You can*t challenge the charges at this time, but a defense attorney can argue the bail amount. A good argument may be the difference between being set free that day or sitting in jail until the next date.
Preliminary HearingThis is the second stage in the criminal process, and an important one. At this stage, the Defendant has a right to a hearing. This is not a full trial. Many people think it is. It is more of a very small, mini trial. At this stage, if the Defendant demands a hearing, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (*the prosecution*) need only show scant evidence that a crime was committed. If the prosecution can show this small amount of evidence, called *prima facie* in the law, then the case gets held over to the Court of Common Pleas and the scheduling begins for a real trial. The preliminary hearing is presided over by a magistrate judge and there is no right to a jury. A jury only comes into play later. Additionally, the regular rules of evidence do not apply. So the Commonwealth can use hearsay, writings and other evidence that would not be admissible at the real, full trial. It is important to know this because even if a case gets held over at the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth*s case may not be as strong at the later full trial. This is one of the reasons it is important to have an attorney at this stage. A skilled attorney gets his first chance to evaluate the strength of the case against his client. I often describe the preliminary hearing as a *gatekeeper stage.* It is an opportunity for the Defendant to defeat a case if the case against them is very, very weak. For instance, if a witness does not show up, you can sometimes win at the preliminary hearing. Also, more minor cases can be worked out at the preliminary hearing where a tentative plea agreement is arranged. All the more reason a skilled defense attorney is needed here. The stronger, more serious cases usually cannot be defeated at the preliminary hearing. But anything can happen. If the case gets held over at the preliminary hearing, you will get a date for the next stage: the Formal Arraignment.
Formal ArraignmentI often joke with my clients that the formal arraignment is just a *formality.* Get it: Formal Arraignment * Formality. At the very least, I make myself laugh. This date will be scheduled a few weeks to a few months after the preliminary hearing. At the formal arraignment your case will be formally turned over to the Court of Common Pleas. No longer will a magistrate judge be involved in the case. Now a Court of Common Pleas judge will preside. Honestly though, when you go to the formal arraignment, the court staff gives you a printed out form called an *indictment* that lists all the charges against you. That*s about it. It is often called a *paper date.* Once you accept that form, you have been indicted. It*s very non-climactic because you will get a date for the Pre-Trial conference and go home. I think my description of this being a formality is accurate. The most important part of this stage, is that after the Formal Arraignment, the Defendant can request discovery (*evidence*) from the Commonwealth and begin to file pre-trial motions. Make sure you hire the Pittsburgh Criminal Law Group, because we will discuss these options with you.
Pre-Trial ConferenceAt the pre-trial conference you will pick a date for a trial. Like the formal arraignment, this stage is a bit of a formality, but it can be very useful. The prosecuting attorney has to appear at the pre-trial conference, so it is a first chance to meet the prosecutor. Your attorney and the prosecutor can discuss the case and begin negotiations. Also, the prosecutor will generally bring sentencing guidelines and might even let you know the outlines of the first plea deal. However, the presiding judge will generally not be involved in the pre-trial conference. You, the client/Defendant, must attend this date and you will sign for a subpoena for your trial date. Trial is the next stage in the process.
TrialThis is one of the final stages in the criminal process. On your trial date, you can either enter a plea, or have the trial. If you enter a plea, no jury will be involved, and evidence will not presented to the court. You will present your plea agreement to the judge, the judge will accept it, and then the guilt or innocence phase of your case is over. There is one more stage: sentencing, but that is whole blog article in and/of itself. Shortly, if you enter the plea on your trial date, the judge might sentence you on the same day, or set up another date for the sentencing. You can influence this decision. A good attorney will help you plan this out.
If you do not take a plea, your trial shall begin. If the crime you are accused of carries more than a six month maximum sentence, you have the right to a jury trial. If you are accused of petty crimes with lower maximum sentences, your trial will be heard by a judge and you will not have a jury. If you do have a jury trial, your attorney and you will select a jury. You will have the right to 12 jurors and, depending on the crimes against you, can strike a certain number of these jurors without providing cause. That means that you can strike a juror without providing a reason. However, you cannot strike a juror based solely on his/her race. Once the jury has been impaneled, your trial will begin. It may not start until a day or so after jury selection, but it may start that same day as well. The prosecution will go first, providing evidence and testimony that a crime was committed. The defense goes next, and they can choose to present evidence, or not present any evidence at all. At the end of the trial, all 12 jurors must make a unanimous decision to convict. If the jury finds against you, your case will move to the sentencing stage. If the jury finds in your favor, you are not guilty and you are free to go.