We understand that if you’re facing legal trouble you’ll likely have questions and will have absolutely no time to waste in getting answers. While we always recommend hiring a private attorney as soon as possible, we like to provide quality answers to the commonly asked questions amongst our clients.
Below you will find answers to the frequently asked questions about our firm, preliminary hearings as well as general criminal information. Please note, the information provided is for the state of Pennsylvania and not case-specific.
If you have legal questions, please contact us to work with one of our experienced criminal defense attorneys. For additional resources you can view our video library, our blog or download one of our guides.
Questions About Our Firm
It is preferable, but not essential, to meet in person before a hearing. Modern technology allows us to discuss your case over the phone, manage payments, and share important documents remotely by various means of communication.
However, this does not mean that you cannot meet with us prior to your hearing. Our team is always willing to meet with our clients in our office whenever we are available to discuss their case. Should you decide that you want to come to our office, it's important that you call ahead and schedule an appointment. Otherwise there may not be an attorney available to you for some time, if we are helping other clients in the office or in Court.
Whether we meet in advance or not, we always plan to meet our clients at the court 30 minutes prior to a hearing. At this time we will go over any documents that need to be completed, tell you what is likely to occur at the hearing, and discuss any changes from the previously discussed strategies and plans for your case.Our offices are open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. We can also schedule an evening or weekend appointment if you are not available during regular business hours.
As a client of Manchester and Associates, we will provide you with copies of any court notices or orders requiring your appearance through the mail. In addition to this, we also call all clients a week ahead of any previously scheduled Court dates, to remind them of their court date and to let them know which attorney will be present at the court hearing. Should you have any questions as to when or where your next court date is our staff will be happy to help you out.
You will also receive a scheduling notice from either the Court Administrator’s office or through an order from the judge presiding over your case. These notices and orders are mailed to your address recorded with the courthouse and mailed from the Court Administrator’s office. On a printed scheduling notice from the court, in the middle of the page, is the date, time, and location for where to appear. If you received an order the date, time, and location will be written into the order itself. Make sure you read all of your mail regarding your case carefully so that you can plan accordingly to appear at all times.
Should you change your residence at any time while your case is pending it is very important that you let your attorney know so that we can inform the court of your change of address. This ensures that you are following your bail conditions which require you to keep the court informed of your current address and that you will continue to receive your mail from the courthouse. In addition, we can update our information as well, so you will also receive our letters about your case.
A preliminary hearing is normally the first step in the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Depending on the crime(s) charged there may have already been a Preliminary Arraignment; if not this will be part of the Preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearings, the commonwealth's District Attorney needs to convince the Magisterial District Judge that there is enough evidence for your case to proceed to the next level of court. The level of proof required is very low: The DA only needs to show that it is more likely than not that a crime occurred and that is more likely than not that the person charged is the person who committed that alleged crime. Despite the low level of proof necessary for the case to move forward, this is an important proceeding where an experienced attorney can learn many things about the case and possible defenses against the charges.
Everyone who has been charged with a misdemeanor or felony in the state of Pennsylvania will have some type of bail set against them to ensure their cooperation with the criminal justice system. Bail may be ROR (released on your promise to come back); unsecured (you owe money if you don’t appear); or cash bail (you must post bail in order to stay out of jail while your case progresses).
Preliminary Hearings are held in two different ways across Pennsylvania. The first way is that your hearing will be held at the local magisterial district court office for the jurisdiction that the offenses are alleged to have occurred in. The second way in which a preliminary hearing is held is through what is called central court. This is where all the magisterial district courts in one county combine all their cases together on one date at a central location. This location is usually the county courthouse. Sometimes hearings are held at the first scheduling date and sometimes a specific hearing date must be requested. Our team of attorneys have experience practicing in many counties in Pennsylvania and will be able to guide you through the preliminary hearing process in the best way for your case.
Once you receive charges in the mail the Criminal Court process starts very quickly. It is our opinion that you should always hire an attorney to represent you any time you have been charged with a criminal offense. No one should go into a criminal case unrepresented. Our team of attorneys know the laws and defenses and how to apply them to the particular facts of your case.
For most cases in Pennsylvania you will have received your charging documents in the mail. One packet is sent through regular mail and an identical packet is sent through certified mail. Once you have received those packets your first court date is usually within thirty days. In this short window of time there are two important things that you will have to do. First, you should contact an attorney to represent you and discuss your case thoroughly with them. Next, if the police did not already fingerprint you, you will have a fingerprint order in your paperwork and will have to get that taken care of before your first court date.
Your first court date is when we start to build the defenses for your case. In certain cases, it is the time to start plea negotiations with the District Attorney so you can get a favorable disposition. In addition, you need to have arguments ready for when the Court is determining your bail. Improper arguments and failure to address bail appropriately can result in a monetary bail which could result in you going to jail. An experienced attorney will be able to discuss all these situations with you and determine how best to proceed in your particular case.
The preliminary hearing is the first time that you have the opportunity to challenge the evidence the police are alleging in your case to justify the filing of criminal charges against you. It allows a defendant or their counsel to cross-examine the witnesses and present evidence in their defense.
The burden is on the Commonwealth to show what is known as a prima facie case. A prima facie case consists of evidence, read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, that establishes it is more likely than not that a crime was committed and that it is more likely than not that the person charged is the person who committed the crime. Ultimately, there are two takeaways necessary for understanding the prima facie burden of proof that the Commonwealth must have at the preliminary hearing. First, the judge must accept all of the evidence presented as if it were true, regardless of how likely or convincing it might be at trial, which means that the credibility of witnesses is not at issue at this stage. Second, because the level of proof is so low, the judge is not determining your guilt or innocence at this hearing. This hearing is only for the Magisterial District Judge to determine if your case should proceed to the next level of court. For the defense, it is the first opportunity to hear the basic evidence the Commonwealth presents and start to make a determination of how strong the case against you really is. While a person may “waive” a preliminary hearing and go right to the next level of court, in some cases having the hearing is the first step in a strong defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney is in the best position to review your case and decide which course of action is in your best interests.
Generally, the next Court date that you will be given is called the Formal Arraignment. This is the first time that you will be required to go to the main Court of Common Pleas courthouse in the County. You may have already been there depending on how that specific county handles their preliminary hearing. From this point forward you will not return to the Magisterial District Court office. Your case will always be handled at the Court of Common Pleas. The Formal Arraignment is an important date for a few reasons. First, this date is for the Court to inform you of the charges that the District Attorney Office is alleging against you and the elements of those charges. This date is also important as it starts the time for the filing of certain documents with the Court. From this date, you have seven days to file a bill of particulars with the Court for the District Attorney Office. You have fourteen days to file for discovery with the District Attorney Office. The last deadline is you have thirty days to file omnibus motions with the Court. Should you fail to file inside any of these timelines that Court can dismiss your filing for no other reason than being late. In addition, you will also be asked to enter a plea, we usually recommend a not guilty plea at this point, and you will be placed on the trial list. In some cases, we might recommend that you fill out a waiver of the formal arraignment. This is a written document that explains the deadlines in your case, enters a not guilty plea for you, and requests a trial in your case. Whether or not to ask for a waiver of arraignment is a decision you will make with your attorney.
After the Formal Arraignment, each county has its own procedure to move cases forward to the next step. Some Counties request status dates where you inform the Court of what is happening in the case and discuss the case with the District Attorney Office. Others have Pretrial days where you must tell the Court if your case if ready to go to trial. This is called by several names such as Pre-Trial Conference, Trial List review, Last day to Plea, and Criminal Conferences, among others.
After this next step, your case will be heading in one of three directions. If you entered into a plea agreement, then you will be scheduled for sentencing. If you told the court that you are going to trial, then you will be scheduled for either Jury Selection if you are entitled to a jury trial or for a Non-Jury trial also known as a Bench trial if you are not entitled to a jury trial. If you told the court you needed more time to prepare for your case, your case will be scheduled for another pre-trial proceeding at a later date.
General Criminal Information
PA separates its criminal offenses into four main categories. Murder, Felony, Misdemeanor and Summary. Murder, Felony, and Misdemeanor also have subcategories called degrees. As 1, 2, 3 and ungraded. A 1st degree is the most serious with the 3rd degree ungraded as the less serious.
Summaries are general traffic and less serious criminal offenses. Most of these are punished with fines. However, there can be serious Driver License issues that can be punished up to 90 days of incarceration and a $300 fine unless otherwise stated by statue for a larger fine. Most summary offenses, if they are the only crimes charged, are handled at the Magistrate office unless an appeal is taken to the Court of Common Pleas.
Misdemeanors are more serious offenses. These offenses can be punished from probation to state prison. Being convicted of a misdemeanor can have serious consequences. A conviction of a misdemeanor of the 1st degree is punishable up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. There are also lifelong consequences such as the loss of your gun rights.
Felonies are for the most serious offenses other than murder. A felony of the 1st degree is punishable up to 20 years and a fine of $25,000. Most felony convictions. Result in a state prison sentence. In addition, you lose a lot of your rights such as to vote and gun ownership. There are also other factors that can increase a felony offense to higher maximum penalties by statute.
Murder is the highest category in Pennsylvania. The maximum penalty for murder is Death or sentenced to prison for life. This is reduced depending on the degree of the murder in which a person is convicted.
For more information see our resource page which has more information on sentencing.
ARD is a form of probation where you serve a period on supervision without a conviction. Once the supervision is complete the charges are dismissed.
Probation and Parole are supervision that occurs after a conviction.
Probation is when you are sentenced to just supervision without any jail time. If you have a violation on probation, you can be resentenced to more probation or to a jail sentence with parole.
Parole is a form of supervision after serving a period of incarceration. If you violate your parole, it is likely that you will be re-sentenced to additional jail time. This resentenced jail time can be up to what is referred to a max sentence in jail. This is when you must serve your entire sentence in jail until your sentence maxes out.
Some Standard conditions on any supervision are: to stay out of trouble, regular reporting to your supervisor, no alcohol or non-prescribed drugs, remain employed or in school, you may not change residence without approval from your supervisor, a drug and alcohol assessment may need to me completed and then you must comply with any treatment that is recommended.
It is normal for the police to ask you for a statement. You have the absolute right to not speak to the police and the right to request an attorney. These rights are guaranteed under the 5th and 6th amendments of the US Constitution.
There are situations when you should talk to the police. However, you should not do this without an attorney. At the bare minimum you should at least speak with an attorney first before you give your statement.
When giving a statement you should be mirandized by the police officer before the interview takes place. You should also have your attorney with you for the interview. These interviews may be recorded either by audio only or by video. It is usually in your best interest to have the interview recorded this way nothing can be taken out of context and the questions and answers can be reviewed later if needed.
Giving a confession during one of these interviews does not mean you will get a lenient or favorable sentence. The police have no control over your sentence. All they can do is tell the District Attorney that you co-operated and gave a confession. The plea offer is up to the District Attorney and the sentencing is ultimately determined by the sentencing Judge.
The short answer is no, only members of PA law Enforcement, be it PA State Police, local police, or the Attorney General’s Office can charge criminal offenses. Once the police are called whether or not charges are filed is up to the police and the District Attorney or Attorney General. Once charges have been filed only the prosecuting attorney be it the District Attorney or Attorney General can withdraw or dismiss charges.
The Prosecutors do not need the person who called the cops to be a cooperating witness they can continue to pursue charges without them. They can also treat them as a hostile witness and call them to testify with a subpoena. This makes the Prosecutors’ case harder but can and does happen.
Pennsylvania passed a law that allows for criminal records to be sealed from the public and employers. This law became active on June 28, 2020. Should the law apply to your matter, then you will be entitled to have your charges sealed Automatically or by Limited Access Petition if certain conditions are met. All Summary Convictions are to be sealed after 10 years of the conviction if all the cost and fines for the conviction are satisfied. All Non-Conviction offenses are to be sealed automatically after 60 days if the charges were dismissed, non-prosed, or a finding of not guilty.
Automatic Sealing of your record, if any of the following conditions apply then your matter will not be sealed automatically and will either have to be done by Petition or your matter does not qualify for any sealing.
- If you were convicted of a Felony or a Misdemeanor 1. If you have had other convictions within the past 10 years other, then the charges you are attempting to seal.
- If you owe any court cost or fines for the charges you are attempting to seal.
- Is it specifically stated that the charge you are attempting to seal cannot be sealed? Some of those are crimes against another person or family, firearm offenses, sexual offenses, cruelty to animal, or corruption of minors.
- Were you convicted of any Misdemeanor 1 or Felony or any of the specifically stated offense that is prohibited for sealing during the same incident for the charges that you are attempting to seal?
- Have you ever in your life been convicted of a Felony, two or more Misdemeanor 1s or higher, four or more Misdemeanor or Felony convictions, or been convicted of indecent exposure, sexual intercourse with an animal, failure to comply with registration requirements, weapons/implements to escape, abuse of a corpse, or prohibited paramilitary training.
If none of these conditions apply to you then your matter should be eligible for automatic sealing of your record.
If you are not eligible for Automatic sealing you maybe eligible for sealing by Limited Access Petition.
Pennsylvania allows for sealing of Misdemeanors if the following conditions do not apply and upon Court approval. If any of the following conditions apply you are not eligible for a sealing of your record.
- Have you ever been convicted of Murder, a Felony 1, or any offense punishable by more then 20 years.
- In the last 10 years have you been convicted of any Misdemeanor or Felony?
- Do you owe any court fees or fines for the case you are trying to seal?
- If the offense you are trying to seal a Misdemeanor 1 of any of the following categories. Crimes against another person or family, firearm offenses, sexual offenses including registration offenses, or corruption of minors.
- Within the past 15 years have you been convicted of two or more Misdemeanor 1s or higher or any of the following: indecent exposure, sexual intercourse with an animal, failure to comply with registration requirements, weapons/implements to escape, abuse of a corpse, or prohibited paramilitary training.
- Within the past 20 years have you been convicted of four or more Misdemeanor 2s or higher or been convicted of a Felony for any of the following: Crimes against another person or family, firearm offenses, sexual offenses including registration offenses.
If any of these conditions apply you are not eligible for your record to be sealed.
There are a lot of offenses that fall into the different categories of offenses that will disqualify your offense. These are listed in different areas of the law. It is important that you talk to an Attorney that understands this law and can tell you if your conviction will qualify. This Attorney should also know how to file the Limited Access Petition. As there are different processes and procedures in every county to get this Petition properly filed.