Stages of a criminal case
What happens after I have been arrested?
Depending on the circumstances of the case, as well as the severity of the crime, you will either be taken into custody or advised of your charges and released. If you are taken into custody, you will go through booking and get fingerprinted. You will also be taken before a magisterial judge who will arraign you and set bail.
If you are released, you will receive notice of the charges in the mail, an order requiring you to be fingerprinted, and notice of your first court date called your Preliminary Hearing.
What happens at my preliminary hearing?
The first court date in a criminal case in Pennsylvania is the preliminary hearing. This hearing occurs before a magisterial district judge. The commonwealth is required to present a prime facie case. This means that they must present evidence of each element of each crime charged, and demonstrate that you are likely the person to have committed the crime. Although the burden on the Commonwealth is relatively low at this stage of the case, this represents your first opportunity to challenge the evidence against you. You or your attorney will be able to cross examine witnesses and present evidence on your behalf.
If the Commonwealth fails to meet its burden, some or all of the charges may be dismissed. If the Commonwealth demonstrates a prime facie case, the charges against you will be bound over to the Court of Common Pleas. At the conclusion of your preliminary hearing, issues of bail may be readdressed, and the judge will provide you with a date for formal arraignment.
What happens during formal arraignment?
During formal arraignment, you will officially enter a plea of ‘not guilty’ and are formally advised of your rights and deadlines for discovery requests and motions. You are also provided with your next court dates which includes you potential trial date.
What happens after formal arraignment?
After formal arraignment, you enter the pre-trail phase of the case during which you or your attorney should request discovery and file motions for relief. During this time you may be scheduled for one or more pre-trial court dates during which you will appear before a judge at the Court of Common Pleas. During these court appearances the judge may request a status update on any issues in the case, or schedule a hearing on any motions that were filed on your behalf. During the pre-trial phase it is possible to resolve your case through dismissal, a plea agreement, ARD, or some other resolution. If the case is not resolved, a date for trial will be set. Sometimes pre-trial motions are filed including motions to suppress and motions to limit certain evidence from going to trial.
What happens in a criminal trial in Pennsylvania?
Not all criminal cases are heard by a jury. In some, a defendant may elect to have the case heard solely by a judge, and in other instances your charges may not qualify for a trial by jury. However, the general process of trial is similar in both a jury and non-jury trial. Prior to the commencement of the trial, the court may address any motions filed by either your attorney or the Commonwealth which seek to exclude certain evidence or witnesses, or resolve some pre-trial issues. If the trial is by jury, the next step would be a voir dire process. During this step, you and your attorney will go through the jury selection process by eliminating potential jurors from the jury pool. In Pennsylvania, twelve jurors preside over the criminal case.
Once the jury is chosen, the Commonwealth gives its opening statement. The defense may either give its opening statement, or reserve its statement for after the close of the Commonwealth’s case. After openings, the Commonwealth presents its case. The Government bears the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Once the Commonwealth concludes its case, the defense may, but is not required, to present evidence or testimony in support of its case.
Once all evidence is concluded, the defense, and then Commonwealth make closing arguments to the jury. The jury is then instructed on the law and their duty as jurors by the judge. The jury is then given an opportunity to deliberate and render a verdict.
If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the case is concluded and the defendant is free to leave. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the defendant proceeds to sentencing by the judge.
What happens during sentencing in a Pennsylvania criminal trial?
During sentencing, both the Commonwealth and defense are given opportunities to present argument, evidence, or testimony to the trial judge in favor of a particular sentence. In ordering a sentence, the judge will consider the defendant’s prior record, as well as the severity of the crimes convicted.
What happens after sentencing in a Pennsylvania criminal case?
After sentencing, the defendant has an opportunity to file post-sentence motions, and/or proceed with a direct appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.