Understanding The Criminal case Process
Pennsylvania Criminal Court Process
If you have recently been arrested you may be wondering what will happen next and what the various stages of a criminal case are. The following information will give you a general understanding of how a typical criminal case progresses through the Pennsylvania court system in Luzerne County. It is an outline of the Pennsylvania criminal process in Luzerne County and it also serves as a table of contents for the information I drafted on this topic. Hopefully this background information will reduce the fear of the unknown and will help ease your worry about your case.
Each section and subsection is linked to an article I wrote briefly describing the topic. You will also find links in those articles that provide additional information about the subject. Please understand that this information is presented in general terms and is not legal advice. All cases are different and you should consult with a lawyer if you have a legal issue. Finally, please understand that a case can be resolved at any stage of the criminal process and that few cases will journey through its entirety.
The first stage of criminal procedure that directly involves the suspect of a crime is the arrest. Often times, a criminal investigation is conducted long before an arrest is made without the suspect's knowledge. An investigation may include interviewing the victim, witnesses and/or suspects; collecting physical evidence; visiting, viewing, photographing and/or measuring the crime scene; identifying suspects through photo arrays or line-ups, etc. The police may even attempt to directly interview a suspect before an arrest in Pennsylvania; if that occurs the suspect should immediately demand an attorney before consenting to any conversation or questioning by the authorities.
For additional tips to protect your rights during a police investigation or following a PA arrest review our information on a suspect's rights.
A Legal Arrest in Pennsylvania Must be Supported by Probable Cause
For an arrest warrant, search warrant, or warrantless arrest to be legal in Pennsylvania it must be supported by Probable Cause as dictated by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and sections seven and eight of the Constitution of Pennsylvania. Probable Cause is a technical term of great legal significance and complexity. In short, it means that "reasonable grounds" must exist for a person to be arrested or searched by the authorities. Case law explains that probable cause is the existence of circumstances which would lead a reasonably prudent person to believe in the guilt of the arrested person. However, mere suspicion or belief that is unsupported by facts or circumstances is insufficient to support a legal arrest. If probable cause does exist it justifies an officer's arrest without the existence of an arrest warrant.
The question of probable cause is extremely important in any criminal case. It always must be scrutinized and will result in the dismissal of a case if it is lacking. Nevertheless, even when probable cause exists, doubt still exists concerning the suspect's guilt. In other words, probable cause is not enough to support a conviction. A PA conviction must be supported a much more difficult standard of proof, specifically, by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Filing of a Criminal Complaint in Pennsylvania
Once an alleged crime is investigated in PA, the police begin the criminal process by filing a complaint with the district justice or by making a warrantless arrest and then filing the criminal complaint. The criminal complaint in Pennsylvania is a multi-page document that contains basic information about the suspect (address, physical description, date of birth), the case filed against the accused (type, date, and location of offense; docket number; date filed), the law the suspect allegedly broke and the specific activity alleged to have violated the law, and an Affidavit of Probable Cause outlining the officer's basis for the arrest and related investigation. The Affidavit of Probable Cause is a summary of the facts that that charges are bases upon.
When a Criminal Summons or Arrest Warrant Issued in Pennsylvania
After the criminal complaint is filed in Pennsylvania the accused is brought into custody by arrest or voluntarily by a written summons. The district justice will issue either a summons or a warrant of arrest, depending generally on the gravity of the alleged offense. In less serious cases in PA a summons is usually used to provide notice of the criminal defendant's scheduled preliminary hearing.
Preliminary Arraignment in Pennsylvania
A preliminary arraignment in PA is a proceeding held before a district justice where the criminal defendant is provided with a copy of the complaint and advised of their legal rights. The district justice also schedules the preliminary hearing that is set not be less than three (3) nor more than ten (10) days after the preliminary arraignment. If the defendant is detained in Pennsylvania, they must be given an immediate and reasonable opportunity to post bail, secure counsel, and notify others of the arrest. If the defendant does not post bail they will be committed to jail. In the vast majority of cases in PA, the District Attorney will not be present at a preliminary arraignment.
Preliminary Hearing in Pennsylvania
The Preliminary Hearing in PA is regularly a critical proceeding in a criminal case and should not be attended without a lawyer. The hearing usually takes place thirty (30) to forty-five (45) days after the charges are filed and can generally be continued to permit further investigation or the hiring of a criminal defense lawyer. Like the preliminary arraignment it is help before a district justice; however, unlike the preliminary arraignment, the substance of the charge(s) against the defendant is addressed at the preliminary hearing. In PA the district justice, however, does not determine the defendant's guilt or innocence. Moreover, the district justice does not impose a punishment for the offense. Here, the judge simply determines if there is enough evidence in the case for it to continue to the Court of Common Pleas. Thus, a preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania is purely an evidence hearing with the goal of evaluating the fundamental merits of the Commonwealth's case against the criminal defendant.
At this stage of the criminal process, the Commonwealth (the prosecutor / District Attorney) is required to present a prima facie case. To establish a prima facie case the Commonwealth must demonstrate evidence that that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is probably the perpetrator of that crime. If a prima facie case is presented, the case will be held for court. This means that the case will be bound or proceed to the Court of Common Pleas. If a prima facie case is not presented, the defendant should be discharged.
Although the police officer may prosecute the preliminary hearing before the district justice a representative from The District Attorney's Office will often appear and present the case on behalf of the Commonwealth. It is not uncommon for negotiations to occur at this level, which can lead to a plea agreement or a reduction of the charges without an immediate plea agreement.
At a preliminary hearing the defendant may:
be represented by counsel
cross-examine witnesses and inspect physical evidence offered against the defendant
call witnesses on the defendant's behalf, other than witnesses to the defendant's good reputation only
offer evidence on the defendant's own behalf, and testify
make written notes of the proceedings, or have counsel do so, or make a stenographic mechanical, or electronic recording of the proceedings.
Paragraph (iii) above is intended to make clear that the defendant may call witnesses at a preliminary hearing only to negate the existence of a prima facie case, and not merely for the purpose of discovering the Commonwealth's case.
It is important to note that, the defendant who is represented by counsel may waive the preliminary hearing at the preliminary arraignment or at any time thereafter. There are many instances when an attorney may recommend waiving the preliminary hearing. Nevertheless, this is a decision that the attorney should discuss with the defendant and explain their reasoning for suggesting the waiver.
If the Commonwealth establishes a prima facie case of the defendant's guilt, the issuing authority shall hold the defendant for court. Otherwise, the defendant shall be discharged. When the defendant has appeared and has been held for court, the issuing authority must set bail as permitted by law if the defendant did not receive a preliminary arraignment and bail was not previously set. Motion to reduce the bail set at the preliminary arraignment can be made at the preliminary hearing.
This is the first proceeding that occurs in the Court of Common Pleas. It typically occurs about thirty (30) to sixty (60) days following the preliminary hearing. The formal arraignment is mostly a status hearing when a not guilty plea is entered to begin the case in the Court of Common Pleas.
At this hearing the defendant is given a copy of the Information and advised of their rights, including the rights to file various pretrial pleadings. This event also starts the technical clock for filing pretrial motions, including but not limited to requests for a bill of particulars and discovery, omnibus pretrial motion, and motions for continuance, and severance or joinder, suppression. These motions should be filed within thirty days after the formal arraignment.
Frequently, there no representative from The District Attorney's Office or a judge present at this hearing.
Pre-trial Status Conference
A pretrial conference, also referred to as a status conference (formally termed "the call of the list") is usually held within forty-five (45) to sixty (60) days following the formal arraignment. This hearing is important because it is often the first time the defendant and their attorney and a District Attorney will appear before the judge assigned to the case. Pretrial motions and issues are discussed at this conference and moved toward resolution.
This is also the position of the case in which a plea agreement is often discussed and reached with the District Attorney. If no plea agreement is desired or reached the defendant's case proceed to a jury or bench (judge only) trial. Depending on the development of the case, the Commonwealth or defense attorney may request a continuance of the case to postpone the trial date.
Most cases, civil or criminal end in a plea agreement. In fact, less than five percent (5%) of criminal cases go to trial. Indeed, the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through a written plea agreement in which the defendant waives the right to trial and admits guilt of criminal activity in exchange for the most serious charge(s) being dropped by the District Attorney. Of course, the purpose of entering into a plea agreement from the defense perspective is to reduce the punishment the defendant may receive from the sentencing judge. A defendant my also seek a plea agreement to quickly resolve the case and avoid the risk and stress of trial. The District Attorney seeks plea agreements to guarantee the conviction and to evade the burdens of trial.
The decision to seek or accept a plea agreement is within the defendant's complete control; however, it is a lawyer's obligation to fully explore the option and explain all the risks and benefits of entering into a plea agreement or going to trial. The defendant's choice to plead guilty should also be a highly informed decision and made only after the criminal defense lawyer fully reviews and analyzes the entire case and thoroughly discussed it with the defendant.
In Luzerne County, sentencing following a plea agreement is generally left to the judge's discretion. In other words, a plea agreement that includes a pre-determined sentence agreed upon by the defense attorney and District Attorney are rare in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas.
If a defendant decided to plead guilty a plea date is scheduled. At the guilty plea hearing the judge will evaluate the defendant to determine if the plea is knowingly and voluntarily entering the guilty plea. After the plea is entered the defendant may be sentenced immediately or sentencing can scheduled to allow the judge to further review the case and the defendant's background through a Pre-Sentencing Investigation Report (PSI). A PSI report is prepared by the court's probation department and provides an outline of the crime, the defendant's personal background and social history, and the defendant's criminal record. In most cases, both the defendant and the victim are contacted by probation to assist in the completion of the PSI. If the sentencing hearing is scheduled a defendant who is free on bail will usually remain free until the date of sentencing.
A trial can be by jury or by a judge alone (bench trial). Most cases that go to trial are jury trials in which the verdict must be unanimous. In other words, all twelve (12) jurors must agree upon the verdict. At trial, the Commonwealth must establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the Commonwealth and the defendant has no obligation to present evidence or witnesses but also has the absolute right to do so.
Less than five percent (5%) of all criminal cases go to trial. Trials are rare for various reasons including but not limited to the following facts; they are time consuming, costly, and uncertain. Having noted that, I find trials to be exciting and the highlight of my job. In short, there is nothing I enjoy more professionally than to be in trial. I absolutely love it.
Below is a basic summary of the stages of a jury trial in Pennsylvania. A bench trial follows the same format except without jury selection and usually without opening statements:
1. Jury Selection
First, residents of Luzerne County (or from whatever county the trial is being held) are selected and summoned to the courthouse for jury duty. These people are selected from drivers' license records and voter registration rolls. A pool of jurors is then selected from that group by an anonymous blind draw. Next, the jury pool is questioned by the judge and attorneys about their background and beliefs during the voir dire. Evaluating the information gathered during the voir dire the attorneys then are permitted a limited number of preemptory challenged (the exact number of preemptory challenged is dependent on the class of crime, misdemeanor, felony, or capital) and an unlimited number of challenges for good cause to exclude specific individuals from the jury. Once twelve (12) jurors are chosen, the Judge gives an oath to the jury and reads them instructions about the trial process.
2. Opening Statements
First, the District Attorney makes an opening statement to the jury about the case and previews the evidence they plan on presenting during the trial.
The defense attorney will usually make an opening statement following the District Attorney's opening; however, the defense can reserve their opening until after the District Attorney concludes their case in chief.
3. The Commonwealth Presents their Case
The District Attorney calls witnesses to provide testimony to prove their case. Following the District Attorney's direct examination of the Commonwealth's witnesses, the defense has the right to cross-examine the witnesses. After the District Attorney calls all their witnesses, and the defense had the opportunity to cross, the District Attorney closes their case.
4. The Defense has the Opportunity to Present their Case
Next, the defense has the opportunity to call witnesses. However, the defense has no obligation to present any witnesses because the burden of proof in criminal cases is on the District Attorney to prove the Commonwealth's case against the defendant. The District Attorney has the right to cross-examine any witnesses the defense produces to testify. Once all defense witnesses have been called, the defense rests their case.
5. Commonwealth's Rebuttal
The District Attorney may present rebuttal witnesses and or evidence to challenge the evidence presented by the defendant during the defense's case in chief. Depending on the scope of the rebuttal, the defense may object and prevent the Commonwealth from producing a rebuttal presentation.
6. Closing Arguments
Next, the defense attorney followed by the District Attorney offers their closing arguments, which review and highlight the evidence presented at trial.
7. Jury Instructions & Verdict
The judge then reads detailed instructions to the jury concerning the law about the crimes the defendant is charged with and the deliberation process. The jury then deliberates, reaches a verdict and returns to court to announce it.
If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the defendant is immediately discharges from custody. If the defendant is found guilty, the defendant may be sentenced immediately or sentencing may be deferred pending a PSI report. If sentencing is deferred, the defendant is returned to court and sentenced on the previously scheduled date. It is within the judge's discretion to allow the defendant to remain free on bail before sentencing or to require them to be held in custody.
A full description of sentencing in Pennsylvania courts is beyond the scope of this discussion of the Pennsylvania criminal process in Luzerne County. Sentencing is a highly technical and complex topic. At sentencing the judge must consider the facts of the case, the victim, PSI reports, prior record scores (PRS), standard guideline ranges, and mandatory minimum sentences.
Here it is important to note that a sentencing hearing is an opportunity to present mitigating evidence in support of the defendant and the time to make every compelling argument favoring leniency. Sentencing can occur at the time a guilty plea is entered, immediately following a guilty verdict, or following the events at a scheduled sentencing hearing.
There are three types of appeals in Pennsylvania criminal courts; post-sentence appeals, interlocutory appeals, and discretionary appeals. In any case, appeals involve complex legal issues and require the defense attorney to identify narrow legal questions for the appellate court to review. Lawyers identify these issues and explain the arguments in legal briefs that state the facts of the case, frame the issues to be decided, and present arguments supported by the constitution, statutes, and prior case law. Once the briefs are submitted the appellate court judges listen to oral arguments from the lawyers. Preparing for the oral argument is an involved process that requires mastery over the facts of the case, the relevant case law, the opposition's position. After the court analyzes the case they will issue an opinion noting their conclusion.
The appellate courts in Pennsylvania are the Superior Court, the Commonwealth Court (review state parole appeals), and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The appellate courts in Pennsylvania are the Superior Court, the Commonwealth Court (review state parole appeals), and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The first option is for defense counsel to immediately file a Motion to Modify and Reduce the sentence that was imposed. This motion is presented to the sentencing judge and argues that the sentence should be altered for specific reasons relevant to the case. The time frame to file this motion is ten (10) from the date of sentencing.
The second option is for the criminal defense attorney to file a Notice of Appeal to the Superior Court. This must be done within thirty (30) days of sentencing or thirty (30) days following the judge's Order denying a Motion to Modify and Reduce the sentence. If the defendant's appeal to the Superior Court fails then the defendant has a discretionary appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
An Interlocutory appeal is when a party tries to appeal a judge's decision prior to trial or before trial is completed. These appeals are available to insure the defendant is given the opportunity to a fair trial within the bounds of the law. Evidentiary issues like the suppression of evidence is a usual topic for interlocutory appeals.
Discretionary Appeal / Appeal by Leave of the Court
This type of appeal is attempted when a technical error precludes a right to appeal or additional review is requested to the PA Supreme Court. For example, a discretionary appeal will be made if an available appeal of right was not filed within the allotted time limits. The appellate court has the discretion to reject these appeals or can "grant leave" for them to be heard. Every appeal to Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is by leave of court (allocatur), with the sole exception of capital, death penalty, appeals which are automatic.
Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)
The Post-Conviction Relief Act provides criminal defendants with a limited right to collateral review of their conviction while they are in custody, on probation or on parole. The custody provision is subtle but important because it limits this relief preventing challenges of non-custodial punishment such as fines and sex offender registration. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 977 A.2d 1174 (2009)(stating "[w]e hold that an appellant who is required to submit to the reporting requirements of Section 9795.1 of Megan's Law II, but has also completed a sentence of imprisonment and/or probation, is not eligible for relief under PCRA Section 9543(a)(1)(i)."). A PCRA begins in the Court of Common Pleas and can then be reviewed in the appellate courts. The time limit is one (1) year from the final judgment of direct appeal. This time limit is strict with narrow statutory exceptions.
Furthermore, defendants can pursue federal review of their Pennsylvania conviction. This is performed by filing a Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal district court. However, this right is only available when there is no right to relief within a PCRA.
For a printable view of the Criminal Case Process, click the attached PDF via the AOPC.