First Time Offenders – Lehigh County, Pennsylvania

If you're facing an arrest for the first time, it can be scary. You probably have a million questions about what will happen next, what the consequences will be, and whether you should just plead guilty. Will you go to jail?

But it's important to remember that you have options. You are innocent until proven guilty, and an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney can help you. An attorney is your best chance to get the best possible result in your case. Your attorney can evaluate your case, help you understand the process, what will happen next, and the possible consequences of a criminal conviction.

The Process: What Happens Next?

To understand what will happen next, you need to know how a criminal case proceeds to trial, every step of the way from after your arrest to post-trial procedures.

  1. Preliminary Arraignment

After your arrest, the police will charge you and take you before a Magisterial District Judge or MDJ in Lehigh County Magisterial District Court. There are seven magisterial districts across the county, with office locations in each district. This hearing will be your preliminary arraignment, which is required by the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 540. At this hearing, the MDJ will explain the charges against you, advise you of your right to counsel, and ensure you have a copy of the criminal complaint and affidavit of probable cause.

At your preliminary arraignment, the Magisterial District Judge will also set your preliminary hearing date and determine whether to set bail. In determining bail, the magistrate will look at the charges against you, any work history, your ties to the community, and whether you've ever failed to appear at a hearing in the past to determine whether or not you should have the opportunity to post bail. See Pa. R. Crim. P. 524. Your best chance to receive low bail or to be released on your own recognizance is to have an attorney represent you at your preliminary hearing. Your attorney can negotiate your bail and conditions of release. Your attorney can also offer for you to surrender your passport or agree to electronic monitoring.

  1. Preliminary Hearing

Your preliminary hearing will also take place before a Magisterial District Judge in Lehigh County. At the hearing, the Commonwealth must present a “prima facie” case. Prima facie means they must present enough evidence to the MDJ to show someone committed a crime and that you committed that crime by a preponderance of the evidence. The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard won't apply at this hearing. The prosecutor will have the burden of proving each element of the crime. If the MDJ believes there's enough evidence to establish that it's more likely than not that you committed the crime, the MDJ will hold the case over for trial. If not, the MDJ will dismiss some or all of the charges.

Your preliminary hearing isn't a criminal trial, which means there are limits to the kind of evidence you can introduce as the defendant. You can't:

  • Bring in an alibi witness,
  • Challenge the validity of a witness identification, or
  • Argue to suppress evidence.

You can waiver your pretrial hearing and go directly to the trial court, but a preliminary hearing is useful. The pretrial hearing is a chance for you and your attorney to see what case the Commonwealth might present at trial and evaluate any witnesses or evidence against you. At the preliminary hearing, or shortly after, your attorney may be able to negotiate a lower degree of offense or negotiate your felony or misdemeanor charges down to a summary offense. For a summary offense, you may pay a fine, enter a diversionary program, or both.

  1. Arraignment

If the MDJ holds your case over for trial, then the trial court in Lehigh County, known as the Court of Common Pleas, will formally arraign you. This formal arraignment usually happens when the case moves from the Magisterial District Court to the trial court. The arraignment may happen at the Lehigh County Courthouse, at the county prison, or another location. Arraignments can also happen by video conference when needed.

At your arraignment, your defense attorney may enter their first appearance in the case if they haven't yet. The judge will advise you of your rights and ask you to plead guilty or not guilty. The court will give you a copy of the criminal indictment listing the charges the Commonwealth will take to trial. The court will set your trial date and also advise you and your attorney of time limits regarding discovery and pretrial motions and the necessity of filing certain notices.

At this point, if you are entering a diversionary program, the court may divert your case. The court will still maintain jurisdiction over your case until you complete your diversionary program.

  1. Pretrial Hearing

Before your trial, you may have one or more pretrial hearings or “calls of the list” in Lehigh County. Every county in Pennsylvania has its specific procedures for setting pretrial hearings. If you hire an experienced Lehigh County criminal defense attorney, they will be familiar with specific local procedures and rules.

The court uses pretrial hearings for several things, including:

  • A status conference to determine how the case is going,
  • Whether there are outstanding discovery motions, and
  • Whether the parties might agree to a plea bargain before trial.

During this process, your attorney may request discovery from the Commonwealth, including materials held by the district attorney, police, and labs concerning your case:

  • Any statements you may have made to the police,
  • Witness statements,
  • Lab reports,
  • Police reports,
  • Videos or photos related to your case.

At pretrial hearings before your case goes to trial, the judge may also dispose of final matters or schedule hearings to resolve evidentiary issues your attorney raises with the court. Following the final pretrial conference, the court will set your case for trial.

  1. Trial

At your trial, the Commonwealth must show that you are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is never a defendant's burden to prove that they aren't guilty. Rather, the Commonwealth must prove each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. But before the jury or judge evaluates the evidence, most criminal trials in Lehigh County follow a predictable process.

  • Jury Selection: Jury selection typically takes about half a day, depending on the trial's complexity. Each side selects the jury and has the opportunity to ask prospective jurors if they can be impartial and whether they may have any conflicts of interest, also known as voir dire. Each side has an equal number of peremptory challenges they can use to strike or remove a potential juror they feel is biased or can't be impartial. You have a right to a jury trial, but you may waive that right and request a bench trial where the judge decides your case.
  • Opening Statements: After the jury is in place, each party will give opening statements. The opening statement presents the plaintiff's version and the defendant's version of the case and what they believe the facts presented during the trial will show.
  • Commonwealth's Case: The Commonwealth presents its case first and calls witnesses to introduce and support its evidence. Your attorney can cross-examine each witness.
  • Defense's Case: After the Commonwealth rests, it's your turn. Your attorney will call witnesses to introduce and support evidence for your defense. The prosecution will also be allowed to cross-examine each defense witness, including you, if you choose to testify. No one can force you to testify at trial, and your attorney may or may not recommend it.
  • Closing Arguments: After both the Commonwealth and the defense rest their cases, each side will give a closing argument. The attorneys will review what they believe the facts at trial showed and try to persuade the jury. Your attorney only has to put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. It is the Commonwealth's burden to prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for each element of the crime.
  • Jury Instructions: After closing arguments, the judge will explain the law to the jury and give them instructions for deliberations.
  • Jury Deliberations: The jurors will deliberate in a closed room to determine a guilty or not guilty verdict. Their verdict must be unanimous.
  1. Post-Trial

If the jury finds you guilty, the court will move on to sentencing. In Pennsylvania, the judge will determine your sentence using statutory guidelines. You can appeal the verdict and the sentence. If the jury finds you not guilty, the court will release you after processing.

Diversionary Programs in Lehigh County

There are multiple diversionary programs in Lehigh County that offer rehabilitation rather than incarceration. These programs attempt to tackle the underlying issues that can lead to criminal activity.

  1. Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition

The Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) is a special pretrial intervention program only permitted for specific crimes, including DUIs, minor drug cases, misdemeanor offenses, and some nonviolent felonies. As part of ARD, the court may place you on probation, order you to attend drug or alcohol counseling, pay fines, restitution, and court costs.

  1. Mental Health Court:

Mental health court is only an option for people with an existing mental health diagnosis. This diversionary program can involve probation, managing your medication, therapy, and drug treatment.

  1. Veterans Court

Veterans court is only available for U.S. veterans receiving treatment through Veterans Affairs programs. The court assigns a veteran mentor to each defendant and usually also requires additional therapy or drug treatment.

  1. Drug Treatment Court

Drug treatment court is for defendants with a drug addiction that may have resulted in criminal activity. This treatment court has four 90-day phases and involves drug treatment, weekly drug tests, electronic monitoring, and counseling.

Hire an Experienced Lehigh County Criminal Defense Attorney

If you're facing a charge for a first offense in Lehigh County, this isn't something you should go through alone. You need a skilled defense attorney to guide you through the criminal justice process in Lehigh County. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney who has represented many clients in misdemeanor and felony cases, helping them get reduced sentences or their charges dismissed. Call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to set up a consultation.

Contact Us Today!

The LLF Law Firm Team has decades of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the LLF Law Firm today! Our Criminal Defense Team will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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