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Criminal Process in Pennsylvania

By John McCurley, Attorney
What happens when you’re arrested and charged with a crime in Pennsylvania.

Like all other states, Pennsylvania has “rules of criminal procedure” that govern arrests and criminal prosecutions. This article gives an overview of how the criminal process works in Pennsylvania.

Arrests

A Pennsylvania officer always needs “probable cause” to lawfully make an arrest. Probable cause is a case-by-case determination. But basically, probable cause exists if the facts and surrounding circumstances would be sufficient to lead a reasonably prudent person to believe a crime has been committed and person to be arrested is the perpetrator. (See Com. v. Harper, 485 Pa. 572 (1979).)

However, an officer having probable cause isn’t always sufficient to justify an arrest. In many situations, police need a warrant for an arrest to legal. To get an arrest warrant, law enforcement must convince a judge that probable cause exists to arrest the suspect. And if the arrest is to take place inside a residence, a search warrant is usually necessary. (However, read about the “consent” and “exigent circumstances” exceptions to the warrant requirement.)

Warrantless arrests for summary offenses. For summary offenses—the least serious type of crime—warrantless arrests are permitted generally only in exceptional circumstances such as those involving violence, danger to the public, or likely flight of the defendant. (Pa. R. Crim. P. 440 (2017); 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8902 (2017).)

Warrantless arrests for felonies and misdemeanors. Typically, a felony arrest doesn’t require a warrant so long as the officer has probable cause. However—with certain exceptions—police must have a warrant to conduct a misdemeanor arrest unless the offense is actually committed in the officer’s presence. (Pa. R. Crim. P. 502 (2017); 75 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3811 (2017).)

Getting Out of Jail and Preliminary Arraignments

The procedures for getting out of police custody differ depending on the seriousness of the charge. For less serious criminal charges, police can release the defendant if satisfied the defendant is likely to come to court and poses no threat to the public. But in cases involving serious charges—first-degree misdemeanors and felonies—or a defendant who police believe is dangerous or a flight risk a judge must decide whether release is appropriate. In such cases, police must bring the defendant to court “without unnecessary delay.”

Summary offenses. Once in court, a defendant charged with a summary offense must plead guilty or not guilty. Defendants who plead guilty will immediately be sentenced by the judge. If the defendant pleads not guilty to the summary offense, the defendant’s trial will typically commence immediately. Follow the trial, the defendant is either sentence or released—depending on whether the judge finds the defendant guilty or not guilty.

Misdemeanors and felonies. When brought before a judge on a misdemeanor or felony, the court hearing is called a “preliminary arraignment.” At the preliminary arraignment—for defendants arrested without a warrant—the judge will decide whether there’s probable cause to believe the defendant committed the charged offense. If not, the judge will order the defendant’s release. The judge also informs the defendant of the contents of the “complaint,” of certain rights, and the conditions of bail. After the hearing, the defendant must be given an immediate and reasonable opportunity to obtain counsel and post bail.

(Pa. R. Crim. P. 431, 441, 519, 540 (2017).)

Pleas, Criminal Trials, and Sentencing

In many cases—especially those involving serious charges—a defendant is best served by entering a not-guilty plea at the outset. Pleading not guilty doesn’t necessarily mean the case will go to trial. A not-guilty plea just keeps the case open, allowing the defendant to negotiate a plea deal with the prosecution. And if a satisfactory plea agreement can’t be reached, the defendant still has the option of taking the case to trial.

Defendants who are charged with summary offenses don’t have a right to a jury trial; rather, summary trials are conducted before and decided by a judge. The right to a jury, however, does apply when a defendant is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of more than six months. A criminal jury consists of 12 jurors.

At a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the charged offense. (Read about burdens of proof in criminal cases.) Otherwise, the jury or judge is supposed to find the defendant not guilty.

For most criminal convictions, there’s a range of possible sentences. In Pennsylvania, it’s up to the judge to decide how—within the allowable range—to sentence a convicted defendant.

(Pa. R. Crim. P. 407, 408, 409, 412, 413, 414, 424, 454 (2017); Pa. Const. art. I, § 9; Hill v. Randolph, 24 A.3d 866 (2011).)

Questions for an Attorney

  • Should I take my case to trial or negotiate a plea bargain?
  • How long to criminal trials usually last?
  • Does a jury’s verdict have to be unanimous?
  • Can I waive my right to a jury trial?
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