Phases of the Criminal Court Process

(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 probable cause that a crime was committed and that 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 a preliminary hearing the Commonwealth is required to present evidence regarding each of the material elements of the charge and to establish that you probably 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 next date set after your preliminary hearing. Normally the Court will schedule arraignment 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. In the counties surrounding Philadelphia 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 your 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. If you are not satisfied that the plea bargain negotiated makes sense for you, then the case is listed for trial at a later date.

(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 low plea bargain offer, or can result in the dismissal of the charge based on an unconstitutional stop or Miranda violation.  The Court may suppress some or all of the evidence against you if your constitutional rights have been violated. Your attorney can 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 trials can be heard before a Judge or a Jury depending on the maximum penalty involved in the case and election of the defendant or prosecutor.  First offense and some second offense DUI cases may not be eligible for a jury trial.  Jury selection in serious cases can sometimes take even longer thant the trial itself.  After jury selection the lawyers give opening statements and then the prosecutor calls the first witness.  The defense has the opportunity to cross examine each witness and then ultimately to call its own witnesses.  The defendant never has to testify if he doesn’t want to.  In Pennsylvania cases must be brought to trial within 6 months or the defendant must be released from prison pursuant to Rule 600 and Speedy Trial considerations, and if trial has not commenced within one year then the charges must be dismissed, absent delay attributable to the defendant.

(F) Sentencing:

The Court imposes a sentence after a conviction at trial or after a plea bargain is accepted and a plea entered.  No sentence may be imposed if the defendant is found Not Guilty. Sentences may include jail time, in-home detention, public service, alcohol classes and/or fines. Pennsylvania requires that sentences for misdemeanors and felonies include both a minimum and a maximum. In some cases the legislature requires the court to impose a mandatory minimum sentence.

Sentences can be served in county prison or state prison. They can involve incentive programs like RRRI, boot camp or good time, which reduce the time spent in prison. They can involve sentencing alternatives like house arrest, inpatient rehab programs, or work release. Sometimes shorter sentences like those served in DUI cases can be served on weekends or college breaks. Give us a call if you have questions about specific sentencing options.