What You Need to Know About Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Laws

Criminal defense laws differ across states. Here is everything you need to know about criminal defense in Pennsylvania, including steps of the criminal justice process and your rights when interacting with the police.

What is the first stage of the criminal justice process?

The first step is the criminal complaint or arrest. In order to make an arrest, the police must have probable cause that you have committed an offense. In some cases, the police may have probable cause to arrest you in the location where the alleged offense happened. In other instances, the police may hold an investigation after receiving a report of the offense and then come arrest you. It is important to remember the scene of your arrest is not the place to dispute the charges, and resisting arrest can result in more charges.

What happens immediately after a criminal complaint or arrest?

After the arrest, the arresting officer brings you to the station for processing and to make an arrest report.

The arrest report goes to the prosecutor who reviews it and can choose to do the following:

  • Decline to press charges
  • Take you to the trial court with a criminal complaint that states the charges.
  • Take the case to a grand jury so they can decide if felony charges should be filed.

Related: Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Laws

What is the second stage of the criminal justice process?

The second stage is a preliminary arraignment. At the preliminary arraignment, the defendant will appear before a judge who will tell the defendant the charges against them and their rights. The court will schedule the defendant for a preliminary hearing ten days from the arraignment date. The court will determine bail and release the defendant or detain the defendant without bail.

What is the third stage of the criminal justice process?

The third stage is a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, prosecutors present sufficient evidence to show the defendant had committed a crime.

What is the fourth stage of the criminal justice process?

The fourth stage is formal arraignment. At a formal arraignment, the court formally charges the defendant. The defendant can plead guilty or no contest and receive a sentence. The defendant can plead not guilty, in which case the court will schedule the case for a trial.

What is the fifth stage of the criminal justice process?

The fifth stage is a trial. In Pennsylvania, a jury of 12 citizens hears a trial. The defendant can request a bench trial where only the judge will decide the verdict. The district attorney acts as the prosecutor and must provide evidence the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense attorney will refute that evidence and present the defendant’s evidence.

Each side gets the opportunity to refute the other’s evidence and witnesses. If the trial is by jury, all jurors must come to a unanimous decision. If they can’t come to a unanimous decision, the judge may declare the trial a mistrial which results in a new trial with a different jury. If the jurors find the defendant guilty, the judge will schedule a sentencing 14 days later.

What is the final stage of the criminal justice process?

The final stage is sentencing. During a sentencing hearing, the judge will listen to the arguments and recommendations from both sides. The judge decides a sentence based on the presented arguments and other circumstances of the case.

What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

Felonies are crimes that are more serious than misdemeanors. Pennsylvania divides crimes into four categories: homicides, felonies, misdemeanors, and summary offenses. Felonies and misdemeanors can be broken down by degree, depending on the severity of the crime.

The maximum penalties for felonies and misdemeanors are:

  • First-degree felony: 20 years and a $25,000 fine
  • Second-degree felony: 10 years and a $25,000 fine
  • Third-degree felony: Seven years and a $15,000 fine
  • First-degree misdemeanor: Five years and a $10,000 fine
  • Second-degree misdemeanor: Two years and a $5,000 fine
  • Third-degree misdemeanor: One year and a $2,500 fine
  • Summary Offenses: 90 days and a $300 fine
  • Do I have to let the police search my property?

Unless police have a search warrant, you do not have to let police search your property. Allowing police to conduct a warrantless search would result in waiving your 4th amendment rights. If the police have a warrant, ask the police to see the warrant before letting them conduct a search.

Related: Pennsylvania Criminal Procedure: Explained

Should I talk to the police?

You do not have to talk to the police. You have the right to remain silent. It is in your best interest not to speak to the police until you have a lawyer present.

Do I need a lawyer?

In any criminal case, having an attorney on your side is beneficial. A criminal defense attorney can ensure your rights are protected and create a solid defense for your case.

What are the rights of someone accused of a crime in Pennsylvania?

The United States Constitution protects individuals accused of a crime at the state level, including:

  • the right to legal representation
  • the right to have a trial by a jury
  • protection against unreasonable searches and seizure
  • the right to face your accuser

Can I refuse to do a field sobriety test in Pennsylvania?

While you are able to refuse to do field sobriety tests in Pennsylvania, you can still be arrested for a DUI. For chemical tests, Pennsylvania has an implied consent law. If you are arrested for a DUI, you may have to do chemical tests or face the consequences for refusing.

Should I tell my lawyer everything?

You should give your lawyer all the information you know about your case. Telling your lawyer can help them create a stronger case for you. Withholding information you have from your lawyer will only disservice you. Conversations you have with your lawyer can not be used against you.

What if my case had an error?

If your case has an error, such as a judge making a mistake when applying the law or a prosecutor overstepping their limits, your lawyer can file a post-sentence motion or a notice of appeal.

What is the Alcohol Highway Safety School (AHSS)?

Pennsylvania law requires the AHSS for first or second-time DUI offenders. AHSS is an education program about alcohol/drug use and driving.

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