Written by attorney Steven Fisher Fairlie

Phases of Criminal Court in Bucks County and Montgomery County Pennsylvania

To see this article properly formatted go to A) Preliminary Hearing: This is the most crucial hearing in your case. The preliminary hearing is not a trial. The principal function of a preliminary hearing is to protect an individual's right against an unlawful arrest and detention. At this hearing the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing at least a prima facie case that a crime was committed and you are probably the one who committed it. It is not necessary for the Commonwealth to establish at this stage that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. To meet its burden at this preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth is required to present evidence regarding each of the material elements of the charge and to establish enough probable cause to show that you committed the offense. An experienced suburban Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney can dramatically improve the odds of a successful resolution to your case at the Preliminary Hearing. (B) Arraignment: This is the date set after your preliminary hearing. It will take place about 30 to 60 days after your hearing. If you have an attorney and sign a written waiver you do not have to appear. This is the hearing wherein the judge advises what charges are filed against you and requests a plea to be entered on your behalf. You can only enter a plea of "not guilty" at the arraignment, even if you would prefer to plead guilty. Since there is no choice in the plea entered I am always mystified as I read the newspaper articles about a criminal defendant entering a plea of "not guilty." There is no other choice at all, so it hardly seems newsworthy. After arraignment we file for discovery to obtain the complaint, police report and all other Commonwealth documents regarding your case. (C) Pre-trial Conference: In Montgomery County we then schedule a court appearance known as a pretrial conference. This stage does not occur in Bucks County criminal cases. A pretrial conference is a conference prior to trial wherein a number of issues will be resolved such as evidence being requested and provided, negotiation of strengths and weakness of the case, scheduling of future court appearances, etc. Your attorney will discuss your case with the District Attorney and negotiate the best possible plea bargain. It will happen about 6 weeks after arraignment. In between the first and second court appearance, we will be making a discovery request on the law enforcement agencies, crime labs and prosecution offices involved in your case. This discovery request is the method attorneys utilize to obtain the evidence pertaining to you! r case. This process may take several appearances and a number of months before we secure all the significant items of evidence so that we may be able to give an informed opinion regarding the strength of your case. We will be exploring resolution of your case at these pretrial conferences. In terms of the number of pretrial conferences, there may be one or more depending on a variety of factors. (D) Suppression Hearing: Before trial we may want to file some pretrial motions that may or may not require your attendance to challenge the admissibility of the prosecutors' evidence. A ruling in your favor can result in evidence being excluded from your trial, including evidence of a blood or breath test, the results of some or all of the field sobriety tests, or adverse statements you may have made. Successful pre-trial motions often compel the prosecutor to make an advantageous plea bargain offer, or can result in the dismissal of the charge based on an unconstitutional stop. The Court may suppress some or all of the evidence against you if your constitutional rights have been violated. Your attorney will file various motions to suppress the evidence against you. It occurs anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months after the pre-trial conference. (E) Trial: Pennsylvania does allow for jury trials, but not on "ungraded misdemeanors." All first and nearly all second offense DUI cases are ungraded misdemeanors subject to a maximum six-month sentence. All such offenses, under the state and federal constitutions, would thus be resolved by non-jury trials. This means that you are not allowed a jury trial on a Pennsylvania DUI case unless it is a second offense with a BAC of .16% or higher (or a refusal), or a third offense DUI. Prior offenses, for purposes of Pennsylvania's multiple offender law, are calculated as occurring within a 10-year period. (F) Sentencing: The Court imposes a sentence after a conviction at trial or after a plea bargain is accepted and a plea entered. Sentences may include jail time, in-home detention, public service, alcohol classes and/or fines. The period of time for which a county is required to incarcerate and/or supervise most DUI cases would be capped at a maximum of six months. Additionally, for repeat offenders in need of treatment, the maximum penalty required would be five years. Thus, county judges will have the option of letting the Commonwealth supervise these individuals and, in such cases, the county will not bear any of the associated costs. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the offender will be required to pay for treatment. All repeat offenders will be required to have their cars equipped with an ignition-interlock restriction system for one year prior to obtaining an unrestricted license. Also, a new offense is created for driving without a required ignition-interlock system when alcohol is present in driver's system.

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