Phases of the Criminal Court Process

(A)  Preliminary Hearing:

Your preliminary hearing can be the most crucial  hearing in your case. The principal function of a preliminary hearing is to protect an individual’s right against unlawful arrest and/or detention. This is assured by requiring the government to show at least a prima facie case. A prima facie case requires evidence showing a crime was committed and the Defendant is probably the one who committed it. The preliminary hearing is not a determination of guilt or innocence, so the prosecution is not required to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at this stage.

You have several options at your preliminary hearing. You can have a hearing at which the Commonwealth must present a prima facie case, you can waive your right to a hearing thereby acknowledging that a prima facie case exists, or you may be able to plead guilty if you are charged with no higher than a misdemeanor of the third degree. The decision whether to have a hearing, waive your right to a hearing, or plead guilty is a critical one so it is important to have the representation of a skilled lawyer at your preliminary hearing. There are certain strategic advantages to each of these options. At your preliminary hearing an experienced criminal defense attorney can dramatically improve the odds of a favorable resolution of your case.

(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:

Depending on the facts of your case, prior to trial we may choose to file one or more motions to suppress certain evidence against you. The Court will then hold a hearing on the suppression motion. Evidence subject to suppression includes but is not limited to physical items obtained through unlawful search and seizure and adverse statements you made to police under circumstances that violate your rights against certain types of interrogation. Motions to suppress are especially common in drug cases where drugs have been found through an unlawful search and in DUI cases where the initial traffic stop was unconstitutional or where BAC results of a blood or breath test have been unlawfully obtained.

When a court rules that evidence has been unlawfully obtained and grants a motion to suppress, the prosecution cannot use that evidence at trial. An effective suppression motion can compel the prosecution to make a low plea bargain offer due to the prospect of not being able to use the evidence that is subject to suppression. It is therefore crucial to identify and act upon potential suppression issues in the early stages of your case. At Fairlie & Lippy our attorneys have successfully litigated hundreds of suppression issues.

(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.