Pennsylvania Criminal Defense System

The Pennsylvania criminal justice system can be confusing and intimidating. The following summary is a brief overview of the criminal process in PA. It is important to remember that each stage of the process comes with its own pitfalls and potential complications. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help to guide you through the system and protect your rights.

Step 1: Complaint Filed

A criminal case usually begins with the filing of a Complaint against the Defendant in the magisterial district court. The Complaint will list each charge the defendant is facing and contain a narrative of the basic facts upon which the charges are based. In some cases the police will initiate the criminal process by first making a warrantless arrest.

Step 2: Warrant or Summons Issued

After the Complaint is filed, the Defendant must be notified of the pending charges and appear in court. In more serious cases, the magistrate judge will issue an arrest warrant to secure the Defendant’s presence in court. For less serious offenses, a summons will be sent in the mail to the Defendant, ordering him or her to appear in court for a preliminary hearing.

Step 3: Preliminary Arraignment

If an arrest warrant is issued, the Defendant will be brought before the magistrate for a Preliminary Arraignment, where he or she is formally notified of the charges. The magistrate will set bond and schedule a Preliminary Hearing within 3-10 days.

Step 4: Preliminary Hearing

In order for the case to go forward, the Commonwealth must establish a prima facie case against the Defendant. In other words, the District Attorney or Police Officer has to present evidence to show that 1) a crime was committed and 2) that it is more likely than not that the Defendant is the person who committed the crime. Preliminary Hearings tend to be rather informal and are conducted in Magisterial District Court.

Step 5: Information Filed

If the Magistrate holds the charges at the Preliminary Hearing, a document called an Information is filed with the Clerk of Courts in the Court of Common Pleas. The Information is a formal list of charges drafted by the District Attorney.

Step 6: Formal Arraignment

At the Formal Arraignment the Defendant is given a copy of the Information and a pre-trial conference date is scheduled. The Defendant must file requests for discovery, pre-trial motions, suppression and other legal motions within thirty days of the Formal Arraignment.

Step 7: Pre-Trial Conference

The Defendant, his attorney and the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case will confer regarding the status of the case. Depending on the county, a plea offer may be made at this time. In most counties a trial date or plea hearing is scheduled at the Pre-Trial Conference.

Step 8: Plea Hearing

If the Defendant chooses to accept a plea offer, a hearing is scheduled for the Defendant to plead guilty before the Judge. In most cases, a sentencing date is scheduled after the guilty plea hearing.

Step 9: Trial

The Commonwealth bears the burden to prove that the Defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The parties may choose to have the case tried before a jury of twelve citizens or before the Judge. Jury verdicts must be unanimous.

Step 10: Pre-Sentence Report

The probation department will conduct an investigation into the facts of the Defendant’s crime and his personal background, including family, educational, and employment history. A report will be issued with a sentencing recommendation based on the probation department’s report.

Step 11: Sentencing

In addition to the Pre-Sentence Report, the court will consult sentencing guidelines to determine the appropriate punishment. Sentencing guidelines are based on the seriousness of the crime (the offense gravity score) and the Defendant’s prior criminal history, if any. The court has a great deal of discretion in sentencing and may impose fines, probation, incarceration, or some form of intermediate punishment, such as house arrest.

Contact our Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, contact one of the experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers at Lisa Marie Vari & Associates. Our attorneys can guide you through the criminal defense process and will provide you with the representation needed to ensure that your rights are protected. To schedule a consultation, contact our office at 412-281-9906, toll free at 1-844-VARI-LAW.