In Pennsylvania, the District Attorney is the chief law enforcement officer for the county in which he or she is elected to serve.
There are sixty-seven counties in the Commonwealth. The Court of Common Pleas of Wayne County has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the county. The first judicial proceedings in a criminal case are held before a magisterial district judge. There are three magisterial district judges in Wayne County and one judge of the Court of Common Pleas.
The following process describes how a misdemeanor/felony criminal case would make its way through the criminal justice system.
Police either witness the crime or they are notified that a crime has been committed.
The police will conduct an investigation of the incident. The police may interview witnesses and suspects; attempt to gather physical evidence; take photographs or video of the scene in question; and in some cases request forensic services to attempt to collect evidence. Pieces of evidence that are gathered may be sent to criminal laboratories to be analyzed.
Police File a Criminal Complaint
A criminal complaint is a document that is filed by the police in the office of a magisterial district judge. The criminal complaint lists the offense(s) charged, identifies the defendant, provides the date of the alleged crime(s), the location of the alleged crime(s) and a summary of the facts that support the charge(s). If the police make a warrantless arrest of an individual the criminal complaint is filed after the arrest. If a warrantless arrest is not made, the criminal complaint is filed first and a magisterial district judge issues a warrant of arrest or a summons.
If a defendant is arrested for a felony offense or a misdemeanor of the first degree, the defendant is brought before a magisterial district judge for a preliminary arraignment. At this proceeding the defendant is given a copy of the criminal complaint and the defendant is advised of his or her constitutional rights. The magisterial district judge will also set bail.
If a defendant has been arrested without a warrant and the most serious charge is a misdemeanor of the second degree or a misdemeanor of the first degree DUI offense, the arresting officer may release the defendant without taking the him before a magisterial district judge for a preliminary arraignment if the arresting officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the defendant will appear when required, and the defendant does not pose a threat to himself or others.
Preliminary hearings are held before magisterial district judges. At a preliminary hearing the defendant has an absolute right to be represented by an attorney. At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth (Office of District Attorney and the police) has the burden of proving that there is prima facie evidence of the defendant’s guilt. This means that the Commonwealth must prove that a crime occurred and that the defendant probably committed the crime. The Commonwealth does not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a preliminary hearing. If the Commonwealth proves a prima facie case the charges are bound over to the Court of Common Pleas. If a prima facie case is not proven, the magisterial district judge shall dismiss the criminal complaint.
Criminal Information Filed
After a case is bound over to the Court of Common Pleas, the magisterial district judge transmits the relevant paperwork to the Wayne County Clerk of Courts. The Clerk then provides those documents to the District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney then files a criminal information. The criminal information contains the formal charges that the district attorney is alleging against the defendant.
Once a criminal information is filed a formal arraignment is held. In Wayne County a judge does preside over the formal arraignment. An assistant district attorney or the district attorney conducts the proceedings. At the formal arraignment the defendant is advised of his or her rights including the right to file certain pretrial motions. Such motions must be filed by the defendant within thirty days of the date of arraignment. The defendant is also given a copy of the criminal information. Defendants may waive their appearance at the formal arraignment if an attorney represents them and both the defendant and the attorney sign a waiver of appearance.
Trial or Plea
In Wayne County, criminal trials are held for two weeks in January, March, May, July, September, and November. Defendants have the absolute right to a trial. However, many times defendants enter into plea agreements with the district attorney’s office. Plea hearings are held before one of the judges typically on every Thursday.
Most trials that take place in Wayne County are jury trials. In a jury trial, twelve citizens must unanimously decide if the Commonwealth has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury unanimously concludes that the Commonwealth has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must find the defendant guilty. If the jury unanimously concludes that the Commonwealth has not proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must find the defendant not guilty. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict a mistrial is declared, and the Commonwealth must decide if they will retry the case.
Some trials are decided by a judge and not a jury. A non-jury trial is held when a defendant and the Commonwealth agree to have the case decided by a judge and not a jury.
If a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, a sentence date is set by the court. At sentencing, it is the judge that decides what sentence the defendant will receive. In some instances, the defendant may face a mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration that the court must impose. However, in most cases the court has a great deal of discretion regarding sentencing. The court must take into consideration the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines, which are promulgated by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. The court will also take into account the facts of the case, the defendant’s prior record, if any, any aggravating or mitigating circumstances in the case, any input from victim or victims, input from the defendant and arguments made by defense counsel and the Commonwealth.