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Your Philadelphia Criminal Case: The Basics

Last updated: September 1, 2016

Philly gets a bad rap. Sure, sometimes we fail to show brotherly love, like when we get over-excited at sporting events. And sure, popular culture does us no favors -- it's unlikely that anyone ever started making trouble in the Fresh Prince's neighborhood. But we aren't any worse than say, Chicago, right?

All of that aside, maybe you have a buddy that became a little unruly in public, forgot to pay for something in a store, held on to someone else's controlled substance, or is charged with battery for throwing ... batteries. That will present you with the small problem of a pending Philadelphia criminal case.

Here's some information on how your -- or your buddy's --criminal case might play out.

What Level of Crime?

Pennsylvania, always the innovator, has three levels of crime while most states and commonwealths only have two. The Commonwealth divides crime into summary offenses, misdemeanors, and felonies. The level of crime determines the procedure in Philadelphia County.

Summary offenses are minor breaks in the law punishable by a fine of up to $200 and/or 90 days in jail. Examples include disorderly conduct, underage drinking, shoplifting (first offense), and criminal mischief. It is possible that you would receive a simple citation with a statement of the facts that make a violation, the amount of the fine, and instructions for how to pay the fine or request a hearing. In some cases, especially if you are posing a danger to others or yourself, you may be arrested.

Misdemeanor cases are somewhat minor criminal cases where you likely have been or will be arrested, and could be fined up to $15,000 and/or imprisoned for up to five years. Felony cases are the most serious cases. You can be fined and/or sentenced to a prison sentence lasting longer than five years.

Which Court?

Nearly all criminal cases in Philly begin in Municipal Court. The only exception is for summary offenses where there is no arrest and court appearance, and the accused simply pays a fine. If there are enough facts to make the case a felony, the case will proceed in the Court of Common Pleas. Otherwise, the case will stay in Municipal Court.

Order of Events

Arrest

You may be arrested without a warrant if an officer suspects you of committing either a misdemeanor or a felony in his or her presence, or if he has probable cause to believe you committed a felony. In most cases it is best to find a Philadelphia criminal attorney. If you cannot afford one, the court may appoint an Assistant Defender to represent you.

Ask for an Attorney Immediately and Often

Pretrial Services Division (PSD) appoints counsel for all eligible adult criminal cases in Philadelphia County. Defendants must first attend an appointment of counsel interview at the PSD's Main Office at 1401 Arch Street. When you ask for an attorney, any questioning by authorities must stop. Also, the sooner you request an attorney, the sooner one will be available.

Preliminary Arraignment

After being arrested, you can expect a representative from the Arraignment Department to interview you, asking for your personal and financial information as well as your criminal history. The reps use this information to create a release guideline and a bail recommendation. Generally it is important to be honest because that honesty may have an impact on the bail that is eventually set. However, it may be best to talk to your attorney first about what information you should reveal.

At the Preliminary Arraignment, the court must notify the defendant of the actual charges and his/her right to an attorney of choice or to an assigned attorney.

Every person arrested in Philadelphia County gets processed in Municipal Court-Criminal in the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice at 1301 Filbert Street. Preliminary Arraignment Court operates 24/7. The City, however, uses videoconferencing technology so that defendants can be arraigned remotely from police facilities around Philly. See the FindLaw courthouse resource pages for more information on Philadelphia Courthouses.

Bail

Post bail at the Bail Acceptance Office, Room B-03 in the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street. The office is open 24/7, including holidays. Cash, credit, and debit are accepted at all times while cashier's checks are only accepted during limited times. Bring a valid ID to the cashier. Bail is also accepted at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, but only M-F, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. Call 215-683-7727 or visit the Pretrial Services Division online if you have any questions.

The Clerk of Courts will accept bail, at any time before your Municipal Court Trial. Felony Trials are heard in the Court of Common Pleas, and not in Municipal Court, so that court's judge may set different restrictions. Not all felony defendants are eligible for bail.

Preliminary Hearing

All Preliminary Hearings will be heard by the Municipal Court. At the Preliminary Hearing, the court determines if the government has enough evidence to go forward with the case. If there is only enough evidence to move forward on misdemeanor charges, but not on felony charges, then the case will be handled in the Municipal Court.

The court may opt for a Grand Jury Indictment instead of a preliminary hearing, but only where there's been witness intimidation or it is likely to occur.

Motions

Prior to trial, defendants and the Commonwealth may each make motions concerning the trial. Usually the motions are heard immediately prior to trial unless one of the motions is for a continuance (a delay in the trial).

Trial

Generally, defendants have at least 20 days between the preliminary arraignment and trial. Use this time to prepare for trial and/or negotiate a plea.

Misdemeanor trials are held in Municipal Court. In Philadelphia, there are no jury trials in the municipal court: the judge decides the outcome. If you've been convicted following a Municipal Court bench trial, you may appeal to the Court of Common Pleas for a new trial.

Felony trials are held in the Court of Common Pleas. These trials may be held in front of a jury.

Sentencing

Generally a judge must schedule the sentencing within 90 days of conviction. The defendant will be allowed to speak, as will the attorneys for both sides. The judge will also notify the defendant of his right to appeal and the time limit for doing so.

Pay Fees

If you are convicted of a crime in Philly, you may be required to pay court fees in addition to any fines. Pay in person at the Criminal Justice Center payment center in Room B-01 or in the Adult Probation building at 1401 Arch St. To pay by mail, include your payment plan number or docket number and case name on the check or money order. Pay by mail to:

1st Judicial district
P.O. Box 37711
Philadelphia, PA 19101

You can also pay the fees and fines online. The court charges a $2.75 convenience fee to pay online.

Recap

You've now had a walkthrough of what may happen in your Philadelphia criminal case. There are many steps, and the consequences can be severe. It's your right and in your best interest to find a criminal attorney to sort through the process and ensure your rights are protected. Good luck!

Get a Head Start with a Free Criminal Case Evaluation

It can be quite confusing knowing what to do after you have been arrested and charged with a criminal offense. It's often in your best interests to hire a defense attorney, especially if there is the possibility of incarceration. Get started today and have a Pennsylvania defense attorney review your case for free.