Northeastern Pennsylvania Personal Injury and Criminal Defense Blog

Overview of the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System

Posted by Michael A. Sklarosky | Apr 07, 2023 | 0 Comments

The following is an overview of the procedure that occurs when a crime is committed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

1) Individual Commits Crime

2) Police are Notified About Crime or Witness Individual Commit Crime

3) Police Start Investigation

This may include the following: interviewing the alleged 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.

4) Police File Complaint

After investigating an alleged crime, the police initiate the criminal process by filing a complaint with the district justice (magistrate) or by making a warrantless arrest followed by the filing of a complaint. The complaint identifies the defendant, lists the crimes charged and contains a brief factual summary upon which the charges are based, called the Affidavit of Probable Cause.

5) Summons or Arrest Warrant Issued

Once the criminal complaint is filed, the presence of the defendant is secured by summons or arrest. The district justice will issue either a summons or a warrant of arrest, depending on the seriousness of the offense alleged. Less serious cases proceed with the issuance of a summons, through the mail, which provides notice of the defendant's scheduled preliminary hearing.

6) Preliminary Arraignment

If an arrest warrant is issued, or if the process was initiated by a warrantless arrest, the defendant must appear before the district justice for a preliminary arraignment. At this proceeding the defendant is provided with a copy of the criminal complaint and bail is set. A preliminary hearing is scheduled not less than three days but not more than ten days following preliminary arraignment.

7) Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing is also held before a district justice/magistrate. At the preliminary hearing the Commonwealth is required to present a prima facie case or, in other words, evidence that a crime has been committed and that the defendant could have been the person who committed the crime.  In Luzerne County, most preliminary hearings are held at Central Court.

The Commonwealth is represented by the District Attorney's Office. If a prima facie case is presented, the case will be held for court and charges forwarded to the Court of Common Pleas. If a prima facie case is not presented, the defendant should be discharged.

8) Criminal Information Filed

After holding a case for court, the district justice/magistrate will send notice to the county clerk of courts who in turn will notify the District Attorney. The District Attorney's Office will then file a formal charging document, called an "information" with the clerk of courts. The information will specify in particular counts the offenses charged against the defendant. 

9) Formal Arraignment

The next proceeding is the formal arraignment. The defendant is provided with a copy of the information and advised of his rights, including his rights to file various pretrial pleadings. All pretrial motions, including requests for a bill of particulars and discovery, and motions for continuance, severance or joinder, suppression, etc., should be filed within thirty days after the formal arraignment.

10) Dispositional Hearing

In Luzerne County, the next court date is called a Dispositional Hearing.  At this appearance the Court will entertain guilty pleas and motions to be accepted into the ARD program.

Defendants whose cases are not disposed of at the Dispositional Hearing will have their cases placed on the trial list.

11) Call of the Criminal Trial List

The next step is Call of the Criminal Trial List.  Prior to the beginning of the next criminal trial term each defendant and their attorney must appear for Call of the Criminal Trial List. At this appearance the Court will entertain motions, pleas, and any other appropriate matters.

Defendants whose cases are not disposed of on that date will be required to appear for jury selection on the first day of the trial term. 

12) Trial

A defendant entering a plea of not guilty and proceeding to trial may generally choose to be tried by a jury of twelve citizens or by the judge alone. At trial, the Commonwealth is represented by a member of the District Attorney's office, who must establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is under no obligation to present evidence or testimony but may do so if he wishes.

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, if tried by a jury, the jury must return a verdict that is unanimous.  If proceeding in front of the judeg with a bench trial, the judge must return the verdict. If a defendant is found not guilty, he will be immediately discharged. If the defendant is found guilty, the Court will generally schedule sentencing at a future date to allow a presentence investigation report be completed.

13) Jury Selection Process

Residents of Luzerne County are randomly selected and are summoned to the Courthouse as potential jurors. A blind draw selects a pool of people from that group. The judge, prosecutor and defense attorney question the jurors about their backgrounds and beliefs. This process is called Voir Dire.

The attorneys are permitted a limited number of "peremptory" challenges to remove jurors and an unlimited number of challenges for cause.  These challenges will usually be made if the potential juror knows one of the individuals involved in the case or indicates that they have a fixed opinion based on an issue in the case.  The number of peremptory challenges depends on whether the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor, felony or homicide. After twelve acceptable jurors are selected, the jurors are given instructions about when and where to report for jury duty.

14a) Jury Trial

The judge gives preliminary instructions to the jury and the jury members are sworn. The prosecutor gives an opening statement to outline his case and evidence to the jury. The defense may give a similar opening statement, or wait until later in the trial. The prosecutor calls witnesses, after which the defense may cross-examine the witnesses. The prosecutor then rests the Commonwealth's case.

The defense has no burden at trial and does not have to present any witnesses.  If the defense chooses to call witnesses the prosecutor may cross-examine the defense witnesses. The defense then rests its case. The defense attorney presents a closing argument to the jury followed by the prosecutor closing argument. The judge gives the jury the criminal jury instructions about the charged crimes and then the jury is released to deliberate until a unanimous verdict is reached.

14b) Bench Trial

The following is the general procedure of a bench trial in front of a judge: The prosecutor calls his witnesses, after which the defense may cross-examine the witnesses. The Prosecutor then rests the Commonwealth's case. The defense may call witnesses, if it wants, and the prosecutor may cross-examine the defense witnesses. The defense then rests its case. The defense attorney presents a closing argument followed by the prosecutor's closing argument. The judge returns a verdict.

15) Guilty Plea

 A defendant may choose to waive his right to a trial and enter a plea of guilty, which admits his guilt of the crimes charged.  Prior to accepting a guilty plea, the presiding judge will ask the defendant a number of questions ensuring that the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily entering a plea of guilty to the charges against him.  After accepting the plea, the judge will usually order a PSI and schedule sentencing at a future date.

16) Presentence Investigation Report

The court's probation department prepares a report for the judge summarizing the crime, and the defendant's personal and criminal backgrounds. Its general purpose is to help the court determine an appropriate sentence.

17) Sentencing

In Pennsylvania, once you are convicted of a crime or plead guilty to a crime, it is the trial judge's obligation to sentence you in accordance with the law. This varies depending on the defendant's prior record and the severity of the crime. The trial judge has broad discretion when it comes to sentencing, and has a wide array of sentencing alternatives available. In Pennsylvania, there are some mandatory minimum sentences that the judge has to impose, depending if the defendant was convicted or plead guilty to a specified crime.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing has promulgated sentencing guidelines as a guide for Pennsylvania trial judges to follow. In Pennsylvania, the sentencing guidelines are not binding on judges, however, the judge will usually consult the guidelines as a reference for framing an appropriate sentence. 

19) Appeal

Once sentenced, the defendant has a choice of seeking review in the trial court or through an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. If review is first sought in the trial court and denied, the defendant may then appeal to the Superior Court. If the defendant's appeal to the Superior Court is unsuccessful, the defendant has a discretionary appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the highest Appellate Court in Pennsylvania.

*Please note that this is a general overview of the procedure that occurs when a crime is committed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Each of the 67 individual counties in the Commonwealth will have procedures and terminology that differ slightly from what is listed above. This is the procedure that generally occurs in Luzerne County, where Sklarosky Law's office is located.

Contact Us Today

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, call Sklarosky Law today at (570) 283-1200 or use our online contact form and tell us about your potential case. Criminal charges can have life altering ramifications. Do not wait, call us today so that we can help ensure that your rights are protected.

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