A case in the Superior Court proceeds through the system in the following manner. Your individual case may differ in some respects, however, depending on the facts. From start to finish, most cases take between six and nine months to resolve completely.
General Stages of a Case
It’s been said that the best way to avoid a criminal conviction is to not get arrested in the first place. Simple as that seems, in any criminal case, promptly contacting an attorney after being accused of a crime may be the difference between being arrested or not. Valuable pre-arrest advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney may also favorably impact how your case is ultimately resolved.
Following most arrests, the accused is presented to a magistrate for the purposes of setting bail. Most of the time, this initial presentment to a magistrate occurs by way of a videophone. Bail is either an agreement to abide by special conditions or the deposit of some form of property (cash or real estate) in exchange for the release of a person after their arrest. The accused promises to return to court when ordered (and to abide by other conditions of bail, such as ‘no contact’ orders, etc) with the understanding that the bail will be forfeited if the accused fails to appear in court or abide by the special conditions. In some cases, bail money may be returned at the end of the trial, if all court appearances are made, regardless of the outcome of the trial. If a bail bondsman posts a surety bond, the fee for that bond is not refundable. By promptly contacting an attorney after being accused of a crime, you may be able to negotiate the terms of your surrender, including favorable bail amounts and conditions. Even after arrest, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to get the bail amount lowered, or remove certain conditions, such as “no contact” orders.
+ Preliminary Hearing (Felony Cases)
For all felony and select misdemeanor allegations, the accused has the right to a Preliminary Hearing in the Court of Common Pleas. The hearing must occur within 10 days of arrest for all persons who are in custody and within 20 days for persons who were released. At the hearing, a judge determines whether “probable cause” exists to continue the prosecution. If probable cause is found to exist, then the case is transferred to the Superior Court for a felony prosecution. A preliminary hearing is a vitally important part of the criminal defense process. While cases are rarely dismissed at the preliminary hearing, a defendant can discover the precise evidence against him or her — this leads to an early opportunity to prepare your defense, and to make essential contact with the police investigator and the prosecutor. In addition, at the time of the hearing, the police investigator may be “locked in” to a description of the arrest, leading to subsequent opportunities to try to exclude evidence from your trial or to dismiss the case outright. In some instances, prompt, favorable, cost-effective resolutions can be achieved at the preliminary hearing.
The next step in the case is called the Arraignment. The Arraignment typically occurs about 4 to 6 weeks after the Preliminary Hearing. At the Arraignment, you will formally enter the court system: the precise nature of the charge(s) will be explained to you, including the possible penalties, and you will be asked to plead “guilty” or “not guilty” to the charge(s). Finally, at the Arraignment, you will be asked to verify your address, and you will be asked to announce the name of your attorney. In many instances, the court rules allow me to file a document called a Waiver of Arraignment on behalf of a client. In that document, I would address each of the points that occur during the arraignment process; you would not have to personally appear in court if we waive the Arraignment.
+ Pre-Trial Proceedings
First Case Review
At the time of Arraignment (in felony and selected misdemeanors cases), you will also be scheduled for a First Case Review. The First Case Review typically occurs 4 to 6 weeks after the date of the Arraignment. A case review is a court event designed to bring the attorneys together to discuss possible ways to resolve the case and to report problems or disputes to the court. The attorneys report to the presiding judge about the status of the case, including unique legal matters, discovery issues, scheduling problems, etc. The judge then issues scheduling and/or discovery orders and deadlines. By the date of the First Case Review, I will have requested the reports and other discovery materials the State is required to divulge in a criminal case. I will continue my discussions with the prosecutor in an effort to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the State’s case against you. I will meet with you to review the “discovery package,” to discuss the State’s case and to prepare your response to the charges. At the case review, the prosecutor may offer to resolve your case with a plea offer; you should know at all times that you have complete authority to accept or reject any plea offer that is extended. If you accept the plea offer, typically you will be required to enter a guilty plea to one or more of the charged offenses; others will be dropped or dismissed. You will either be sentenced right away, or at some later time following the preparation of a presentence investigation report. If you do not enter a plea at the First Case Review, your case will be scheduled for a Final Case Review a few months after the First Case Review.
Final Case Review
The Final Case Review occurs about 6 to 8 weeks after the First Case Review. At the Final Case Review, we will again try to resolve your case. Again, you will have complete authority to accept or reject the plea offered. If you reject the plea offer made at Final Case Review, your case will be scheduled for Trial.
At present, most cases are being scheduled for Trial within two weeks after the Final Case Review. Unless there are “extraordinary circumstances,” there will be no plea agreements between the Final Case Review and the Trial date. You will be required to either go to Trial on all charges or to plead guilty to all charges. This is a significant area where Superior Court trials are different than the misdemeanor court trials. Unlike in the Superior Court, the misdemeanor courts schedule trials several weeks to several months after the final case review. You should also know that approximately 90-95% of all criminal cases are resolved short of an actual trial. A good percentage of misdemeanor cases, moreover, are resolved on the very day of trial. It’s expected, therefore, that in most misdemeanor cases, we will prepare for a trial knowing that most cases are resolved without the formalities of a trial.
At sentencing your lawyer will present the case for the most favorable sentence for you.
If you plead guilty or are found guilty following a trial, and if you want to appeal your conviction and sentence, you must do so within 30 days after sentencing. I will appeal your case if there are any legitimate issues or any arguable errors in the trial or sentencing. As with any criminal proceeding, a defendant has the right to be represented by an attorney during an appeal. If you feel that you can not afford to hire an attorney, immediately contact the “Office of the Public Defender.”