What to Expect after You are Arrested in Pennsylvania
The following is a step-by-step guide to the criminal legal process in Pennsylvania after an individual has been arrested. Please note that each county in Pennsylvania has its own local rules and practices.
Preliminary ArraignmentAfter charges are filed against a defendant, the first official event in the Pennsylvania criminal justice process is the preliminary arraignment. After a defendant is arrested for a misdemeanor or felony they will be taken in front of a district justice at the local magistrate office where they will be arraigned. Arraignment is a process where the magistrate will typically review the current charges, criminal history, work history, ties to the community, and whether a defendant has ever failed to appear for a criminal hearing to determine whether a defendant should be afforded bail. Bail is an amount of money that the magistrate believes will secure future appearance in court if a defendant were to be released from custody. At a preliminary arraignment, the magistrate will also set a date for the defendant's preliminary hearing.
Preliminary HearingAfter a defendant has been arrested and charged with a criminal offense, and before the defendant can be tried on that offense, there first must be a preliminary hearing in front of the local magistrate. At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth (District Attorney and police) must set forth a prima facia case against the defendant. Specifically, the Commonwealth must present evidence to the magistrate that a crime was committed and that by a preponderance of evidence (more likely than not or 51%) the defendant was the person who committed the crime. Please note that the burden is on the Commonwealth to prove their case and they must prove that each element of the underlying crime has been committed. If the magistrate finds that the Commonwealth has presented sufficient evidence that the defendant committed the crime they are charged with, then the magistrate will bind the case over for trial. If the Commonwealth does not meet its burden of proof, some or all of the charges could be dismissed.
A preliminary hearing is not a trial so there are limitations on what evidence, if any, a defendant or his counsel can present. For instance, a defendant may not challenge the validity of an identification, present an alibi defense, or argue that evidence should be suppressed. Nonetheless, a preliminary hearing is a valuable tool to for a defendant as it gives them an opportunity to evaluate the evidence against them including what type of witness a law enforcement or civilian witness may make before the actual trial.
In some cases, it may be possible for a defendant's counsel to negotiate a misdemeanor or felony charge down to a summary offense; in which case, the defendant simply pays a fine and/or participates in a diversionary program. For example, if a defendant is charged with misdemeanor harassment as a result of a fight, the Commonwealth may offer anger management classes in exchange for reducing the misdemeanor charge to a summary.
Formal ArraignmentIf the magistrate finds that there is sufficient evidence to hold a defendant's case over for trial, a formal arraignment will be scheduled at the Court of Common Pleas in the county in which the defendant was arrested. The formal arraignment is the day the case is formally transferred from the lower magistrate/district court to the trial level court, the Court of Common Pleas. At the formal arraignment a defendant is advised of certain rights and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. The defendant is also provided with a copy of the criminal indictment which is the formal charging document which lists the charges the Commonwealth will proceed to trial with.
Pretrial Conference/Call of the ListAfter a formal arraignment, the case may be listed for either a Call of the List or Pretrial Conference, depending on the county. Both are status conference hearings to advise the Common Pleas judge on what the status of the case is. The judge will be advised on whether a plea deal is in the works, whether the case will immediately proceed to trial, or whether it is necessary for the case to be delayed to discover new evidence. In some counties, it may be possible for a defendant's attorney to work out a favorable plea deal at the Pretrial Conference or the Call of the List that would resolve the case without having to go to trial.
TrialIf a plea deal is not reached at the Pretrial Conference or the Call of the List, the case will be put on a trial list or scheduled for a specific trial date. When this takes place, it is expected that the case will proceed to a full trial and the court will take steps to secure a jury panel to hear the case. While the court expects both sides to be ready for trial on the trial date, postponements are available for legitimate reasons. However, it is not smart to assume a postponement will be granted and whether a postponement will be granted often depends on various factors including but not limited to: who the judge is, whether there have been any prior postponements, or whether the other party objects or consents.
At the time of trial, the Commonwealth must prove a defendant is guilty of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. At the close of the trial the judge will provide the following instruction to the jury on what reasonable doubt is. Pennsylvania Suggested Standard Jury Instructions 7.01 states, "A fundamental principle of our system of criminal law is that a defendant is presumed to be innocent. The mere fact that the defendant was arrested and is accused of a crime is not evidence against them. Furthermore, the defendant is presumed innocent throughout the trial and unless and until the jury concludes, based on careful and impartial consideration of the evidence, that the Commonwealth has proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not the defendant's burden to prove that he or she is not guilty. Instead, it is the Commonwealth that always has the burden of proving each and every element of the crime charged and that the defendant is guilty of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The person accused of a crime is not required to present evidence or prove anything in his or her own defense [except with respect to the defense of [type of defense]. If the Commonwealth's evidence fails to meet its burden, then the verdict must be not guilty. On the other hand, if the Commonwealth's evidence does prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, then your verdict should be guilty. Although the Commonwealth has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty, this does not mean that the Commonwealth must prove its case beyond all doubt and to a mathematical certainty, nor must it demonstrate the complete impossibility of innocence. A reasonable doubt is a doubt that would cause a reasonably careful and sensible person to hesitate before acting upon a matter of importance in his or her own affairs. A reasonable doubt must fairly arise out of the evidence that was presented or out of the lack of evidence presented with respect to some element of the crime. A reasonable doubt must be a real doubt; it may not be an imagined one, nor may it be a doubt manufactured to avoid carrying out an unpleasant duty." It is important to note that in a criminal case, all 12 jurors would have to agree that a defendant is either guilty or not guilty.
Sentencing HearingIf a case ends with a conviction, either due to a guilty plea or a finding of guilt after trial, the next step will be a sentencing hearing. If a defendant has pled guilty, the sentencing hearing can either take place on the day of the plea or on a subsequent date. If a defendant is convicted after a trial, the sentencing hearing will usually be held at a later date.
At the sentencing hearing the defendant will be permitted to present arguments for the sentence that they feel is warranted based on the criminal offense. Often times, this is the defendant's opportunity to explain why the crime was committed, how they plan on rehabilitating themselves, and apologize for their conduct in hopes they receive a lighter sentence.
AppealA convicted defendant is afforded certain appellate rights by both Pennsylvania state law and federal laws. Pa.R.Crim.P. 720 addresses a defendant's post-sentencing rights including a direct appeal to the Superior Court. Specifically, Rule 720 states that a written post-sentence motion shall be filed no later than 10 days after imposition of sentence. Another such method of appeal is to file a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"). 42 Pa.C.S.A. section 9542 provides for an action by which persons convicted of crimes they did not commit and persons serving illegal sentences may obtain collateral relief. The action established in this subchapter shall be the sole means of obtaining collateral relief and encompasses all other common law and statutory remedies for the same purpose that exist when this subchapter takes effect, including habeas corpus and coram nobis. This subchapter is not intended to limit the availability of remedies in the trial court or on direct appeal from the judgment of sentence, to provide a means for raising issues waived in prior proceedings or to provide relief from collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Except as specifically provided otherwise, all provisions of this subchapter shall apply to capital and noncapital cases. Generally speaking, a PCRA petition shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final. If the court rules in favor of the PCRA petitioner, it shall order appropriate relief and issue supplementary orders as to rearraignment, retrial, custody, bail, discharge, correction of sentence or other matters that are necessary and proper.