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Section 17 Probation vs. ARD in Pennsylvania for First Time Offenders

When a person has no prior criminal record, and then gets charged with a possessory drug offense, there are usually two options that they should consider as a way to resolve the case: Probation without verdict (aka Section 17) and ARD (accelerated rehabilitative disposition). Both of these programs are designed for first time offenders as a way to resolve cases without a resultant conviction or criminal record.

Pennsylvania’s Section 17 Probation for First Time Offenders

Section 17, although authorized by the Pennsylvania statutes at 35 P.S. Sec 780-117, is a probationary program that is not offered in all counties in Pennsylvania and has different components depending on the county where you are charged. When a defendant (person charged with a crime) enters a plea under the Section 17 statute, they are in fact pleading guilty to the crime, but the verdict or conviction is being held in abeyance for the period of time that they are on probation. If they successfully complete the probation, which can be reporting or non-reporting, they will have the Section 17 drug charges dismissed and be eligible for expungement. However, if they are unable to complete the probationary program without obtaining new charges, they will be sentenced in accordance with their plea and have a criminal record.

When is Section 17 Probation Used in Pennsylvania?

For example, imagine a person is sitting in his vehicle at a park after the park is closed. A police officer is on routine patrol and decides to drive through the park as part of his nightly duties. As he pulls into the park, the person sees the police car and starts to pull away. The person was going to smoke marijuana in his car at the park, but never got the opportunity because the police officer pulled in and he didn’t want to get caught so he tried to pull out of the park. As the person is pulling away, the officer puts his overhead lights on and performs a traffic stop. He immediately says he smells the odor of unburnt or raw marijuana and asks to search the car. The person consents to the search, because the officer explains that the law in Pennsylvania allows him to search the car upon detecting the odor of marijuana. During the search, the officer finds a smoking device, grinder, and a baggie with a couple of grams of marijuana. The officer questions the person about whether he has smoked recently, to determine if he should have the person perform field sobriety tests to charge a DUI. The person denies any recent use, there is no odor of burnt marijuana, the person appears fine, so there is no further investigation for DUI and the police officer simply charges possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia for the grinder and pipe. Now, after receiving the charges in the mail, the person (defendant) must decide whether he should fight the case by requesting a trial, or take advantage of either the Section 17 or ARD program to resolve his case. In any county he can request a trial, which would then make him ineligible for any of the programs. However, if he wants to insure that he will resolve the charges without any criminal record he must use one of the programs in accordance with the rules of that individual county.

If he is in Montgomery County he must do a Section 17, because they do not offer ARD for possessory drug offenses. In Bucks County he can decide which program makes the most sense for his specific situation. In Chester County, a Section 17 is not offered, and they do not use ARD for these types of drug offenses either. Generally a defendant in Chester will resolve the case at the preliminary hearing with community service and a reduction from a misdemeanor drug offense to a non-traffic citation of disorderly conduct. If not, the person trying to keep a clean record will be forced to apply for the much more intensive “drug court program” as the only way to attempt to refrain from having a criminal record. In both Lehigh and Northampton Counties, the Section 17 program is not offered, so the defendant will be forced to use the ARD program if he wants to insure he will he will stay conviction free.

Pennsylvania’s ARD Program

ARD can be used for any misdemeanor, non-violent offense, and is therefore often used for possessory drug offenses. In contrast to Section 17, when a defendant is placed on ARD, they do NOT plead guilty prior to their probationary program. Thus, if they get charged with a new offense while they are on their ARD probation, they can go to trial on the original charge or plead guilty; the choice is preserved since a plea was never entered. However, in some cases, if there is a choice, it is better to use a Section 17 for an initial drug case because it may be possible to use an ARD for a subsequent drug case, however it does not work in the reverse order!

The Differences Between Section 17 and ARD in Pennsylvania

The requirements of the programs vary, however both will result in either automatic expungement or expungement eligibility upon successful completion. One important factor is that in most counties, the defendant is required to appear but waive his or her preliminary hearing (can not contest the charges even at the initial hearing level). Specific program requirements vary but, generally Section 17 requires a letter from a doctor stating the defendant has been evaluated for abuse of the drug in question and is drug dependent. (These letters are not difficult to get and are not always required). In some cases that may mean the person has to engage in drug treatment in order to complete the program, however in most cases a Section 17 is simply non-reporting probation for anywhere from a minimum of 30 days to a maximum of one year. ARD does not require a letter, but there is usually a requirement for a number of community service hours ranging from 10 to 24 hours, depending on the county involved. ARD may be reporting or non-reporting, and the non-reporting is usually just a once a month check in requirement by phone or internet. Both programs require the payment of all court costs in order to complete the program and have the charges dismissed. Some counties require all costs to be paid up front, and others let the defendant pay the costs over the course of the probationary period. The costs generally range from $1100.00 to $2000.00 depending on the program and the county. There are no fines associated with either program, but obviously the costs are high and are meant to be prohibitive! One of the interesting facts to consider is that even though ARD and Section 17 are meant to be, “one bite at the apple” programs, there are circumstances whereby an individual can get, “an additional bite at the apple”. An experienced attorney will know if that is a possibility based on the facts and the location of the case.

Our Pennsylvania Drug Possession Defense Lawyers Can Help

Therefore, someone charged with a possessory drug offense should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney who practices in the appropriate county in order to get the best outcome for their case.

Were you charged with drug possession in Pennsylvania with or without a prior criminal record? Our experienced and dedicated drug crimes defense lawyers can help. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney at Young, Marr & Associates, call our Pennsylvania office today at (215) 372-8667.



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Commonwealth v. "H" (DUI case)

Client was charged with three separate DUI cases calling for mandatory minimum imprisonment of 90 days on each case. Client was advised to seek immediate intensive alcohol counseling. Client was sentenced to 1 year of house arrest after serving 3 days in the county prison.


Commonwealth v. "C" (Felony drug/Firearms case)

Client was charged with felony Delivery of drugs and illegal gun possession and was facing a mandatory 3-6 year prison sentence in the State prison system. Client was sentenced to one year of house arrest.


Commonwealth v. "S"

Client was charged with simple assault, domestic. After a hearing where evidence and testimony was presented, the entire case was dismissed by Judge Leonard Brown.


State of New Jersey v. "H"

Charges for young man charged with second degree aggravated assault were downgraded to third degree and he was accepted into the County Pretrial Intervention program with charges to be dismissed and record expunged after one year of misconduct free behavior.


We have decades of experience dealing with local police departments, prosecutors, and judges throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Anyone facing charges involving a criminal offense can expect to experience a heightened degree of emotional turmoil, for themselves, as well as their family members. Our team of highly qualified criminal law attorneys and expert legal support staff are committed to providing each of our client’s with the compassion and understanding they deserve, as well as an aggressive plan for representation at an affordable price.

As former prosecutors, we have a balanced and in-depth understanding of the criminal justice system and how the prosecution prepares cases. In addition, we have long-standing experience dealing with local police departments, prosecutors and judges throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

At Young, Marr and Associates, when we say “experience matters,” we mean it. Our lawyers, which include two former prosecutors and a former senior deputy district attorney bring more than three decades of criminal law experience, handling more than 10,000 criminal cases. It is precisely that experience that allows us to achieve outstanding results for our clients facing DUI, traffic, felony and misdemeanor charges in state, federal and juvenile courts.