Pennsylvania Criminal Law Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

Q. What is a preliminary hearing?

A. A preliminary hearing is an appearance before a district justice, where the Commonwealth must show that there is enough evidence against the defendant to go forward to trial. The Commonwealth has very little work to do at the preliminary hearing, because the judge nearly always finds that the Commonwealth has presented enough evidence for the case to go forward.

At the preliminary hearing, a defendant has the right to cross-examine the police officer who testifies against him or her, but such cross-examination is often limited by the judge.

In certain cases, the defendant may choose to "waive" the preliminary hearing - which means that the Commonwealth does not have to present any evidence to the court. Waiving the preliminary hearing is a tactical decision that your attorney will be able to explain to you.

Q. What is an arraignment?

A. An arraignment is hearing before a judge at which a defendant enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. During the arraignment, the judge will formally read the charges against the defendant out loud in open court. More often that not, defense counsel will say something along the lines of "Waive reading, your Honor." This simply means that the defense counsel understands the charges against the defendant, and is saving the court some time by waiving the right to have the charges formally read.

After the reading of the charges, or the waiving thereof, the judge will hear the plea of guilty or not guilty and accept the plea. The case is then scheduled for a pretrial conference.

Q. What is a pretrial conference?

A. The pretrial conference is typically the first time that the defendant and defense counsel have the opportunity to speak face to face with the district attorney or prosecutor in the case. At the pretrial conference, the state wants to gain an understanding of how the case will proceed. The district attorney and the defense counsel will discuss whether the state will extend a plea bargain offer, whether the defendant will accept a plea bargain offer, whether the case will settle quickly or go to a full trial. The attorneys will also discuss any issues regarding the suppression of evidence, discovery issues and motions which have been filed or which are to be filed.

The attorneys will then speak to the judge and let the court know how the case will proceed.

The pretrial conference gives both sides the opportunity to see how the case will ultimately be resolved. If the case is headed for a full trial, the court needs to be aware of this so that it can be properly scheduled on the docket.

Q. What is a suppression hearing?

A. When the police gather evidence, they must do it in a legal manner. For instance, in order to search a home, the police must have a valid search warrant.

When a lawyer, representing a client in a criminal matter, wants to challenge evidence gathered by the police and to argue that the evidence was gained illegally, the lawyer asks for a suppression hearing.

At the suppression hearing, the judge listens to testimony as to how the evidence was obtained, and decides if the evidence was obtained legally or illegally. If the judge finds that the evidence was gathered illegally, the judge orders the evidence be suppressed - that means the evidence may not be used at the trial of the defendant. If the judge finds that the evidence was gathered legally, then the evidence is not suppressed and may be used at the trial.

Q. How does plea bargaining work?

A. It has been said that pleas bargains are the grease that allows the wheels of justice to keep turning. Without plea bargains, the entire justice system would grind to a halt.

A plea bargain is an arrangement between the state and the defendant, whereby the state offers to drop some of the charges against the defendant, if the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the remaining charges.

For example, suppose a defendant is charged with drunk driving, speeding, changing lanes without signaling and possession of a small amount of marijuana. The state might offer to drop the charges for speeding and changing lanes without signaling if the defendant agreed to enter a guilty plea on the charges of drunk driving and marijuana possession.

Depending on the facts of each case, plea bargains can be good for the state and good for the defendant. The state benefits because it does not have to spend the time and effort of conducting a full trial. The defendant benefits because he only pleads to some of the charges, and is not convicted on all of them.

However, plea bargains are not always in the best interests of the defendant, and there are times when a full trial is appropriate. Each case is unique, each case has it's own particular facts which defense counsel will assess in making a determination of when to accept or reject a plea bargain offer.

Q. If I accept a plea bargain, does it appear on my record as a conviction of guilt?

A. Yes. When a defendant accepts a plea bargain and agrees to plead guilty to some of the charges, that defendant is admitting guilt and the court will enter a conviction against that defendant. Pleading guilty to a charge results in a conviction for that charge.

Q. Several years ago I entered a guilty plea on a minor crime, and now I want to get it removed from my record. Can I have it expunged?

A. No. If you have entered a plea of guilty, nolo contendre or gone to trial and been found guilty and sentenced, you cannot have your record expunged. Expungement is for those persons who have completed the A.R.D. program, been found not guilty at trial, gone through a probation without verdict program or had the charges dropped. Persons who have a conviction on their record cannot wipe it out through expungement. The only exception to this rule, is that expungement is available to a person who reaches the age of 70, who wants their record cleaned up after living a crime-free life.