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Criminal Procedure

Crime Committed

A crime is reported or witnessed by the police.

Police Investigation

The police will conduct an investigation of the incident.  Interviews of witnesses and suspects may be conducted; physical evidence is gathered; photographs or videos of the scene may be taken; in some cases forensic services may be contacted to collect further evidence; evidence may be sent to criminal laboratories to be analyzed.

Criminal Complaint

This a document that is filed by the police in the office of the magisterial district judge.  The Criminal Complaint lists the offense(s) charged, identifies the defendant, provides the date(s) of the alleged crime(s), the location of the alleged crime(s) and a summary of the facts that support the charge(s).

Preliminary Arraignment

If a defendant is arrested for a felony offense or a misdemeanor of the first degree, the defendant is brought before a magisterial 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 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 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 Hearing

At a preliminary hearing the defendant has an absolute right to be represented by an attorney.  At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth has the burden of proving that there is prima facie evidence of a defendant’s guilt.  The purpose of a preliminary hearing is not to determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence.  This means the Commonwealth must prove that a crime occurred and that the defendant probably committed the crime.  The Commonwealth does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at a preliminary hearing.  If the Commonwealth establishes a prima facie case, the charges are bound over to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.  If the Commonwealth fails to establish a prima facie case, the magisterial judge will dismiss the complaint.  

Criminal Information

After the case is bound over to the Court of Common Pleas, the District Attorney then files a criminal information.  The criminal information contains the formal charges that the District Attorney is alleging against the defendant.  

Formal Arraignment

At formal arraignment the defendant is advised of his or her rights, including the right to file pretrial motions.  Such motions must be filed by the defendant within 30 days of the stated arraignment date.  Defendants may waive their appearance at formal arraignment if an attorney represents them and both the attorney and defendant sign a waiver of appearance.  

Trial or Plea

Defendants have an absolute right to trial.  However, many times defendants enter into plea agreements with the district attorney’s office.

Some trials are decided by a judge and not a jury. A non-jury trial is held when the defendant and the Commonwealth agree to have the case decided by a judge and not a jury.  

Jury trials are conducted each month with the exception of July and December.  In a Jury trial, 12 citizens must unanimously decide if the Commonwealth has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  If a jury finds that the Commonwealth has met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must find the defendant guilty. If, however, the jury finds that the Commonwealth has not met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, they jury must find the defendant not guilty.  If the jury cannot reach an unanimous verdict, a mistrial is declared and the Commonwealth must decide if they will retry the case.  


If a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, a sentence date is scheduled by the court. At sentencing, it is the judge who 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 great discretion with regard to sentencing.  The Court must take into consideration the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines, the facts of the case, the defendant’s prior record, input from the victim(s), any aggravating or mitigating factors, input from the defendant and arguments made by defense counsel and the Commonwealth.

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