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Criminal Law Basics

Posted on January 19, 2015 at 7:00 PM

Been Arrested or Questioned, You Have Rights-Use Them!

If you or a loved one have been arrested or questioned in relation to a crime (even if you are completely innocent of that crime): 1) obtain an attorney and 2) cease all communications with law enforcement, except to inform them of the fact that you have invoked your right to counsel. The right to remain silent and the right to an attorney are two of the basic rights available to everyone accused of a crime; they are so important that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly required law enforcement to remind you of those rights (i.e. the Miranda warnings). Too many people make the mistake of trying to talk their way out of a situation or worse, believe that an attorney makes them look guilty. If the police are questioning you, you already do look guilty, but law enforcement probably doesn’t have enough to convict you yet. Don’t give them what they need.

 

What to do When Stopped By Law Enforcement?

Your safety is paramount. Comply with all instructions, even if you believe your rights have being violated. You can always protest the actions of law enforcement at a later date without sustaining additional charges or being harmed. The American Civil Liberty Union (“ACLU”;) advises the following:

• Stay calm and be polite.

• Do not interfere with or obstruct the police.

• Do not lie or give false documents.

• Prepare yourself and your family in case you are arrested.

• Remember the details of the encounter.

• File a written complaint or call your local ACLU if you feel your rights have been violated.

https://www.aclu.org/drug-law-reform-immigrants-rights-racial-justice/know-your-rights-what-do-if-you

What to Expect, the Basic Steps

All Felony and Misdemeanor cases will follow the basic framework below. Summary offenses, juvenile offenses, and traffic offense may follow a different schedule. It is important that you retain an attorney before the preliminary hearing and cease all communications with law enforcement. Also, you lose certain rights by not raising them at certain junctures prior to the trial.

 

1. First Step: the Preliminary Arraignment

Once arrested, the very first interaction with the Court will be at the Preliminary Arraignment. Usually held before a Magisterial District Court Judge, the preliminary arraignment is where you will be provided with a copy of the complaint and warrant (if applicable) and informed of the type of release on bail. Bail is essentially money that you can pay to be released from jail during the criminal proceedings. At the preliminary arraignment, the District Judge will also set the date and time for the next step of the process, the preliminary hearing (approximately 10-21 days later). See Rule 540.

 

2. Second Step: the Preliminary Hearing

Also held before a Magisterial District Court Judge, the preliminary hearing is not a trial; rather, it is an opportunity for the accused to challenge the Commonwealth’s evidence. At the preliminary hearing, the accused also has a right to counsel, the right to cross examine witnesses, the right to inspect the physical evidence, the right to call their own witnesses, and the right to offer their own evidence. The accused even has the right to not have a preliminary hearing if they properly inform the Judge. The District Judge shall determine from the evidence presented whether there is a prima facie case that (1) an offense has been committed and (2) the defendant has committed it. A “prima facie case” essentially means the government must provide some measure of proof that the accused probably did the crime and is the person who did it; it is a lesser standard than the one used at a trial where the Commonwealth must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Court concludes that the Commonwealth has met its burden, then the matter will be bound over for trial at the Court of Common Pleas. See Rule 542.

 

3. Third Step: The Formal Arraignment

This is the first step that will actually be held in the Court of Common Pleas. Here, the Court will advise the defendant of the charges that were bound over from the Magisterial District Court and advise the accused of the date of the pretrial conference. Importantly, the completion of the formal arraignment kicks of several significant deadlines including the right to ask the Commonwealth for a copy of all evidence it has in its possession and the right to challenge the constitutionality of certain charges or actions by law enforcement (by filing an Omnibus motion). Like the preliminary hearing, the accused is capable of waiving the formal arraignment, but must properly notify the court of the intent to do so. See Rule 571.

 

4. Fourth Step: The Pre-Trial Conference

The pretrial conference is basically an opportunity for the parties to meet with the Court and each other prior to trial to determine if there are any outstanding issues that can be resolved before Trial. Each Court (and even each judge) handles these conferences differently. For the most part, the pretrial conference resolve discovery issues and anticipated problems with the admissibility of evidence and witnesses. If an Omnibus Motion had been filed or if ARD was approved by the Commonwealth, the Court is likely to address these matters at the Pretrial Conference. The Judge will also set forth the date of trial and any other pretrial deadlines at this conference. See Rule 570.

 

 

5. Fifth Step: Trial

Unless you have done anything to cause delay, the trial should be held within 365 days of the filing of the Complaint. Generally, you have a right to select either a jury trial or a non-jury trial (i.e. a trial before a judge only). Alternatively, you can enter a guilty plea or related no contest plea where you do not admit guilt but admit that there is enough evidence to convict you. At the trial, the Commonwealth has the burden of proving your guilt. They will present evidence and witnesses attempting to reflect your guilt; you have the opportunity to present your own witnesses and evidence demonstrating your innocence. Each party may also cross examine the others witnesses (i.e. subject them to scrutiny by questioning them). The standard of conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essentially, if there is any doubt as to the Commonwealth’s claim that you are guilty, and that doubt is reasonable, then the Commonwealth must go beyond that doubt to convict you. In other words, if the jurors or judge have no doubt as to the defendant's guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty. See Rule 600.

 

6. Sixth Step: The Sentencing Hearing

If you have been convicted of a crime, or pled guilty, the Court must impose a sentence in accordance with the expectations of the legislature (i.e. the mandatory minimum sentences). In some limited circumstances, the Judge can reject the mandatory sentence. Generally sentences involve time in jail but can also include probation, electronic home monitoring (house arrest), fines, community service, stay away from the victim, restitution to the victim, or enrollment in a drug and alcohol treatment program. The length of a sentence is also dependent upon a number of factors including any prior record. See Chapter 303.

 

Categories: Criminal Law & Expungements, Lawsuits & Appeals

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