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Overview of the Criminal Court System in Pennsylvania

Overview of the Criminal Court System in Pennsylvania

Arrest: The police file charges against the defendant alleging a violation of criminal law.


2.  Preliminary Arraignment: The Defendant is advised of charges which have been filed against him and is advised of future hearing dates. Bail is set in order to secure the presence of the defendant at trial.

3.  Preliminary Hearing: Commonwealth must establish a “prima facie” case before a Magisterial District Judge.  Prima facie means “on the surface.”  In other words, the commonwealth must establish that a crime has been committed and that the defendant more than likely committed the crime.


4.  Formal Arraignment: Defendant is formally advised of the charges that have been filed against him/her by the district attorney's office or the attorney general's office.  The document which is filed with the clerk of courts containing the specific charges is called the Criminal Information. Also, the defendant enters a plea.  If a plea of not guilty is entered then a pre-trial hearing date, a status conference date or a trial date is set by the court.


5.  Pre-Trial Hearings: If pre-trial motions, such as a Motion to Suppress Evidence, Motion to Quash the Information, Motion for Severance, etc. are filed, then a hearing is held prior to the trial where the court will rule on the motions.


6.  Pre-Trial Disposition: A defendant may be placed on a pre-trial diversionary program such as ARD or may choose to enter into a negotiated guilty plea.


7.  Trial: The Commonwealth has the burden of proving the Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  The trial can take place before a jury of 12 people or before a judge. A defendant has the right to testify at trial but can not be compelled to testify or offer evidence. 


8.  Sentencing: If a defendant is found guilty after trial or pleads guilty, the defendant will appear before a judge for sentencing.  The judge will consider the needs of the defendant, the age of the defendant, nature of the offense, impact on victim, etc., and will impose a period of incarceration and/or probation on the defendant.

9.  Appeal: if the Defendant is found guilty he has the opportunity to appeal his conviction to a higher court.