What Happens When a Pennsylvania Traffic or Police Officer Says “You Will Receive a Summons in the Mail”?
There are several steps to the court process for a legal summons in Pennsylvania. Consult with a Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer at Young, Marr & Associates today if you need help navigating important details about your upcoming court hearing. Call our law offices today at (215) 372-8667 for a free consultation.
Criminal Process for Receiving a Summons to Appear in Court in PA
The Criminal Complaint
The Pennsylvania criminal process begins by the officer filing what’s called a “criminal complaint.” This is the charging document that lists the criminal offenses you have been charged with. But how do you receive the complaint? Two ways: if the charges are misdemeanor charges, you will receive the complaint by regular and certified mail. This can take several weeks from when the police contact occurred, but be on the look out for the complaint because it will be accompanied by a notice to appear at a Preliminary Hearing (discussed below) and an order to get “processed.” If the charges are felony charges, an arrest warrant will be issued which will require you to physically turn yourself in to the police. In either event, it is crucial that you speak with an attorney immediately upon police contact so that the appropriate and necessary steps can be taken.
The Preliminary Arraignment
Next in the criminal process is what’s called the “preliminary arraignment.” This is the first official proceeding in the criminal justice process, and it is held before a Magisterial District Court Judge (in Philadelphia, the preliminary arraignment is held before a Municipal Court Judge). At the preliminary arraignment, the judge is required to inform you of your right to an attorney and the criminal charges that have been filed against you. The judge is also required to set bail and to schedule the next official proceeding in the criminal justice process, the preliminary hearing (discussed below).
The most important thing that will occur at the preliminary arraignment is the setting of your bail. Bail is designed to ensure two things: (1) your appearance at each and every stage going forward in the criminal justice process; and (2) safety of the community. In answering these two questions, the judge will look to whether you live in the community and/or have any local ties to the community. The judge may also look to whether you are employed, or whether you have a passport, or whether you have had previous court cases in which you have failed to appear at some of the proceedings. The judge will also look to the severity of the criminal charges that have been filed against you, as well as whether you have any previous criminal convictions. If the charges are violent in nature or, if you have previous violent criminal convictions, the judge may weigh these facts in determining whether you would pose a danger or a threat if left in the community. In weighing these factors, the judge will determine whether bail should be set at a monetary amount (in which case you will have to post money to be released) or an unsecured amount (in which case you will be released on your own recognizance without having to post any money).
The preliminary arraignment is a critical stage in the criminal justice process because it initiates what type of bail will be set. You of course have an absolute right to an attorney, and upon receiving notice of the criminal charges, you should immediately contact a criminal defense attorney to discuss this critical next step.
The Preliminary Hearing
Before delving into what the preliminary hearing is exactly, it might be easier to say this: the preliminary hearing stage is basically like a brief presentation by the Commonwealth on what their case is all about. At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth, through either the police department or the District Attorney’s Office or both, has the burden of showing that there is some evidence to support the criminal charges that have been brought against you. At this stage, the Commonwealth has two show that it is “more likely than not” than (1) a crime was a committed, and (2) you, the named defendant, are connected in some way to that crime. If they cannot show this, then the charges must be dismissed for a lack of evidence.
The preliminary hearing is the stage in the criminal justice process that sets the tone for the entire case. It is absolutely crucial that an attorney be present on your behalf at this stage. Why? Because this is the stage where either the case is negotiated or dismissed after a hearing. You, the named defendant, have the right to “waive” your hearing. By waiving the preliminary hearing, you are not pleading guilty. Instead, you are acknowledging that the Commonwealth has enough evidence for the criminal charges to stick and for the case to proceed. You might ask: why would I agree to this? Simply put: this is where the art of negotiation takes place. Oftentimes, the Commonwealth will make an offer on the case such as withdrawing some of the charges or, agreeing to a probationary sentence, if you agree to waive your right to a preliminary hearing. If this is the case, you’ll need proper counsel there to advise you on how to proceed.
There are, however, many instances where a negotiation can’t be reached at the preliminary hearing and, so, what happens? The preliminary hearing unfolds. During the hearing, the Commonwealth presents its evidence through live witnesses who testify. The defense then has an opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses. When the Commonwealth is finished presenting its case, the defense may choose to even present its own evidence to REBUT the Commonwealth’s case (although this is very rare!). But after all of the evidence is introduced and after all of the questioning is done, both sides get to present legal argument before the judge. If the judge believes that the Commonwealth has met its burden in showing that a crime was committed and the defendant was connected to the crime, then the criminal charges are held over for trial, the next step in the criminal justice process. If not, the case is dismissed.
The Formal Arraignment
The formal arraignment is a procedural hearing and very similar to the preliminary arraignment, as described above. During this proceeding, you will be given notice of the criminal charges that have now been bound over for trial, as well as your right to file any pretrial motions, such as motions to exclude certain evidence. The most important part of this process, however, is your entry of a “plea.” At the formal arraignment, you will be given an opportunity to enter either a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty.” If you plead guilty, then your case will move straight to the Sentencing stage (discussed below), however, if you enter a plea of not guilty, your case will move to the Pretrial Conference stage (discussed below).
Pretrial Conference and Trial
During this stage, the case will be resolved by either entering a plea of guilty or proceeding to a trial. The purpose of a pretrial conference is to discuss all of the issues that exist with the case and to try to resolve the case short of it going to trial. There are many negotiations that take place during the pretrial conference stage, and so it is very important that you not only have an experienced attorney by your side but a local attorney by your side, one that has developed relationships with the local prosecutors and police officers. If the case cannot be resolved by way of a guilty plea at the pretrial stage, then the case will go to a trial which can be decided by either a judge or a jury of 12 people.
Sentencing for a Criminal Charge in Pennsylvania
If you plead guilty to a crime or if you are found guilty after a trial, the case will finally come to the Sentencing stage. It is at this stage that the judge will determine what your punishment will be. In doing so, the judge will take into consideration the nature of the crimes that you are now guilty of and whether you have a previous criminal history. The judge will also hear from you, the named defendant, and will look into your background to determine what an appropriate sentence should be.
Let Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers Help You
If you were charged with a crime and received a summons to appear in court in Pennsylvania, do not go through the process alone. Contact our experienced team of criminal defense attorneys at Young, Marr & Associates today at (215) 372-8667 for a free consultation about the criminal process in PA and your legal representation options.