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Criminal charges can have a negative impact on your life – they can result in fines, restrictions of your freedom, a permanent and public record, and incarceration. We can help to minimize these impacts. We have experience with DUIs, drug cases, thefts, assaults, and many others.
We can begin to assist you from the moment you are charged with a crime, or that you suspect you may soon be charged with one. To avoid missed opportunities and irreversible mistakes, it is very important to secure the services of a criminal defense attorney early in the criminal process.
If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime and are considering obtaining the services of a criminal defense attorney, you know that the process can be overwhelming and confusing. The following is a basic outline of the process, and the ways in which a criminal defense attorney can help:
Arrest / Charges
You do not have to be handcuffed and taken by a squad car to be charged with a crime. Many crimes do not involve immediate incarceration. However, the details of your arrest or of the situation that led to your being charged can be crucial to your defense moving forward. Police officers sometimes make mistakes and violate rules when arresting and charging defendants. An experienced attorney can spot these issues and use them to fight for you.
The first major step in the criminal law process is the preliminary hearing. This is held at one of the several magisterial district courts in the county. This hearing does not determine guilt or innocence. Rather, the magistrate judge simply determines whether the case has any reasonable basis at all. If there is any real possibility that you could be convicted, the magisterial district court will advance your case to the Court of Common Pleas, which is located in the County Courthouse.
It is very important that you have a criminal defense attorney at the preliminary hearing, because it is your first opportunity to examine the prosecution’s evidence, to speak with the police officer or other witnesses, and to negotiate a possible deal with the district attorney’s office. This is also your first opportunity to apply for pretrial diversion programs, which are explained in more detail below.
The formal preliminary hearing can be very useful for placing on the record the basic outline of the prosecution’s case, and for establishing a basis for pretrial motions to suppress evidence. If your attorney determines that the best course of action is to pursue a pretrial diversion program or a plea deal, it is possible that you might “waive” (or skip) the formal preliminary hearing itself. You still must go to the magisterial court in order to waive, but the formal hearing will not be held. If the prosecution is willing to offer an acceptable deal, waiving the hearing saves time and is a sign of goodwill.
Pre Trial Diversion Programs
Pretrial diversion programs allow lenient treatment for first time offenders. These programs generally result in your charges being dismissed and / or expunged from your record in exchange for your completion of a program designed to address any underlying drug and alcohol problems that may have contributed to the charges being brought against you.
The two most common programs are Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) and Probation Without Verdict (PWV).
ARD is typically used for first time DUI cases, but it can apply to other offenses as well. The exact details of the program vary because it can be tailored to individual cases. Generally, it includes attendance of classes about alcohol abuse, meetings with the probation office, and the payment of monthly fees. Successful completion of ARD will result in the offense being dismissed, but generally you are only eligible for ARD once.
PWV is a similar program, but it specifically applies to minor drug related offenses. More serious drug offenses (like possession with intent to deliver), or even minor ones if accompanied by more serious charges, are not eligible for PWV.
Both ARD and PWV involve the payment of fines that may exceed one thousand dollars. However, both programs are unquestionably preferable to a regular guilty plea, or to being convicted by a judge or jury. The penalties for those situations can be significantly higher.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you determine whether you are eligible for a pretrial diversion program, and can guide you through the process of being accepted into one.
In Indiana County, the next major step following the preliminary hearing is called Criminal Call. At this point, a criminal case is presented to the Court of Common Pleas. The prosecutor, the defendant and the defendant’s attorney are called upon to inform the Court of their intentions. This essentially means telling the Court whether the defendant is applying for a pretrial diversion program, whether the defendant has decided to enter a guilty plea, has decided to go to trial, or whether we need more time to consider the options.
An experienced criminal defense attorney will have by this point discussed with the District Attorney’s office the chances for resolving the case without a trial. This includes plea deals, in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty to some offenses in exchange for the dismissal of other offenses, and possibly options like seeking mental health treatment or paying restitution to victims in exchange for dismissal or significantly reduced punishments.
If you do not qualify for a pretrial diversion program, or if you and your attorney determine that the strength of your case outweighs the prosecution’s plea offer, the next step is to file pretrial motions. Based on the facts available at this point, these motions could be for additional discovery, to suppress evidence gathered in an unconstitutional search, and for other matters that can strengthen your case and undermine that of the prosecution.
Sometimes additional discovery and successful motions can lead to a better plea deal. If, however, the prosecution and defense remain unable to reach agreement, the next step is trial.
Trials are a major and risky undertaking, but sometimes they are the only way in which a defendant can hope to obtain an acceptable outcome. Arguing against the Commonwealth, with its resources and prestige, is no small project – the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney are crucial.
There are two kinds of trial: a bench trial, which is in front of a judge alone, and a jury trial, which is in front of a jury. If the trial is before a jury, you, your attorney and the prosecution will have the opportunity to select jurors from a large pool.
At criminal trials, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the elements of the crime. If the trial is a jury trial, all of the jurors must be convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the trial is a bench trial, only the judge must be convinced.
Before and during trial, you and your attorney will strategize and plan for the best method of presenting your case. Your attorney may present evidence, call witnesses on your behalf, obtain the opinions of experts, and cross examine the Commonwealth’s witnesses and experts. Ultimately, the goal is to present to the judge or jury a picture of your case that clearly demonstrates the prosecution’s failure to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The decisions of judges and juries can be unpredictable, even for the most experienced attorneys. If the trial results in a conviction on some or all of the charges, the next step will be sentencing. Even if no trial has occurred, sentencing will follow the acceptance of any plea deal.
Sentences generally range from costs and fines, to costs, fines and probation, to costs, fines, incarceration and probation. The severity of the sentence depends on the seriousness of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and to some extent the judge’s discretion.
A few crimes in Pennsylvania still carry mandatory minimum sentences, where the judge is required to impose a term of incarceration. These crimes notably include certain kinds of DUI’s (especially beginning with a second DUI), and driving on a suspended license. Even in these instances, an experienced attorney may be able to find ways to mitigate the severity of the punishment.
For most crimes, sentences are determined by an Offense Gravity Score assigned to each crime, and by the defendant’s Prior Record Score. In addition, certain crimes carry with them “enhancements” that increase the severity of the punishment. Finally, the judge and a presentence investigator may conduct interviews and investigations into a defendant’s life circumstances to determine whether leniency or stricter treatment may be merited. An attorney can help you determine your likely sentence.
After sentencing, your attorney may file appeals to the higher court, arguing that the trial court ruled incorrectly on motions or objections, allowed evidence to be presented that should have been excluded, or that the sentence was incorrect. Appeals are a complicated process, but they can be very important. If proper procedures were not followed at the trial court level, an order from the higher court is the only way to remedy this.
Expungement is the process by which a crime can be removed from your records. Normally if you have been convicted of a crime, that crime stays on your record forever – employers, schools and other organizations that might check your record will find it.
Under certain circumstances, a crime can be expunged from your record so that it can no longer be seen by the public. An attorney can help determine whether you are eligible for this, and can help to achieve it. A straightforward expungement case is relatively affordable, but it can be a long process – even in simple cases, it can take 3 – 4 months at least. But if a criminal record is causing you problems, and if it can be expunged, it is well worth the wait.