New PA Rules for Summary Incarceration

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ May 6, 2015

The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure are being amended, effective July 1 of this year, to incorporate the principle that, for summary cases, a defendant should be released on recognizance (ROR) and that collateral be set only if the issuing authority has reasonable grounds to believe that the defendant would not appear.  The changes apply to Rules 431 (Procedures When Defendant Arrested with Warrant), 441 (Procedures When Defendant Arrested without Warrant), 452 (Collateral), 456 (Default Procedures: Restitution, Fines, and Costs), 461 (Stays), and 1033 (Procedures When Defendant Arrested with Warrant).

This change comes in response to submissions to the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee from magistrate judges, the Court Administrator, and members of the public that a practice had developed where summary case defendants were regularly being incarcerated for failure or inability to post collateral.  Reports suggest that individuals were being incarcerated for minor infractions such as parking tickets.  The new rules and commentary provide guidance about how the issue of collateral should be handled in summary cases.

The amendment of the rules is intended to more equitably balance the issues involved in magisterial court decisions.  The Rules Committee, in their Final Report, did acknowledge that some of the difficulty of the ROR decision was because individuals were showing disrespect for the courts.  Nevertheless, the Committee reaffirmed the policy that summary cases are not deserving of imprisonment in most cases.

Note that the Rules Committee expressly decided against a policy of ROR in cases where the defendant would likely not appear, but is unable to post collateral due to financial hardship.    The new rules additionally require that the issuing authority (i.e. the magistrate judge) provide a written reasoning for how he or she came to the decision on why collateral should be set, in order for the decision to be an informed and thoughtful one.

In cases where the individual is incarcerated for a summary offense, the trial must be held within 72 hours, with the defendant being required to be released on ROR at the end of that time-period. This creates an incentive for law enforcement and the judiciary to speed up the timetable for adjudicating summary cases where the defendant is incarcerated, and provides a remedy to the defendant in case the wheels of justice don’t turn quickly enough in a particular case.

Overall, these are welcome developments that recognize significant deficiencies in the court system that are being addressed by the State Supreme Court and its advisory committees.

Here is the PRCP Final Report.

Here is the RCP Amended Rules.

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