If you have been arrested or are being questioned by police about a crime, it is very important to talk with an attorney immediately in order to preserve your rights. The police do a wonderful job of keeping us safe, but like all of us, they are not perfect. Sometimes they suspect the wrong person, and in their desire to gather enough evidence to arrest and convict, they get statements from suspects that can be taken the wrong way and later used against them. For that reason, even if you are completely innocent, an attorney’s guidance can be crucial to your situation.
Here is an overview of the criminal process in Pennsylvania-
When police become aware of an alleged crime, they investigate and gather evidence to determine the who, what, when, where, why and how of the incident. If they determine a crime was committed and have enough evidence to show someone did it, that person is arrested and charged with the crime(s).
Some charges, such as DUI are often filed by mail, without actual arrest. Others are done by either asking the suspect to turn themselves in, or police finding the suspect and taking them into custody. The suspect is charged with the crime(s), processed, and given a preliminary arraignment where a judge reviews the charges and sets bail. If bail is made, the person charged, now a defendant, is released. If bail is not made they will remain in custody until bail is made. At this time a preliminary hearing date and time are set.
This local procedure, held at the District Court closest to the arresting police department, is designed to ensure the charges against the defendant are legitimate, and the bail is reasonable. What happens at a preliminary hearing is the state of Pennsylvania has to prove to the local judge that there is enough evidence in the case to support the charges filed. It is not a trial, and the state doesn’t have to prove it’s case, it only has to show that the evidence it has, if proven true, is enough to convict the defendant of the charges at trial. At this hearing, several things can happen. All charges can be sent up to county court for trial, some can be sent up and some dropped, or all can be dropped. There is also an opportunity for negotiation with the District Attorney to reduce or drop certain charges in exchange for cooperation. If the case is one which makes sense to plea bargain, didn’t involve violence, and it is a person’s first offense, Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, is a wise choice, and the first step in that process is to waive the preliminary hearing. That is another reason why having an attorney early in the process is very important.
If the charges are dropped, the case is over and the defendant is free. If any charges are sent up to the next level, bail is reviewed for fairness, and a formal arraignment date is set.
This is a simple matter that requires either a court appearance by the defendant, or a waiver (also required if making an ARD application). It is merely a reading of the charges by a judge, and is a quick process often done by video in the courthouse. After the formal arraignment, a trial date is set.
The trial date often becomes the pre-trial conference date. At that time, the district attorney will usually offer a plea bargain, exchanging a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. If an ARD application was made, if accepted, the terms of the ARD will also be an option. The plea terms can be negotiated, and experience can play a large part in getting a better outcome for a defendant. If the plea bargain is accepted, the defendant signs the paperwork, appears before a judge to plead guilty, and the judge hears the proposed sentence and almost always accepts it. The ARD process is similar, except instead of a guilty plea, the defendant is taken out of the system and doesn’t have to plead guilty. After finishing with the judge, the defendant is taken to pay fines, register for probation, community service, or do whatever else is required by the terms of the deal. If imprisonment is part of the sentence, that can begin immediately or at a later date, depending on the specifics of the case.
If a plea deal isn’t reached, and ARD is rejected, the case will be listed for trial and a date and time set.
Not many cases go to trial. The state is very careful to only bring cases that they are very likely to win, and the penalties for losing at trial are more harsh than the plea bargains are. For those reasons, only a small percentage of cases actually go to trial, but sometimes that is the best alternative. If a trial is asked for, which is any defendant’s right, usually a jury trial, as opposed to a bench (judge) trial is chosen. Defendants usually stand a better chance to be found not guity by a jury of their peers than by a judge. I won’t go into the specifics of a trial, but they are complex and expensive, and not the best choice for most cases. In the end though, the defendant makes the choice, and the attorney’s job is to do what they can to win the case, or at least win a lesser sentence in the event of a guilty verdict. As with a plea bargain or ARD, at the end of the trial a not guilty verdict means the case is over and the defendant is free. A guilty verdict means a penalty will be set, and that could be immediate or at a future date. Whether or not the defendant is free to go depends on the circumstances of the case.
Hopefully this information will prove helpful if you or someone you know is facing criminal charges. There is no substitute for specific legal advice though, so do yourself a favor andcontact me for a free consultation as early in the process as you can.
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