Criminal Law Overview

Posted on 03/11/2015

Being charged with a crime can be scary and confusing. Most states follow the same steps all across the nation, but each state may vary in its own specific procedures. This guide explains the criminal process and procedures in Pennsylvania.

The Arrest Procedure

In Pennsylvania you’re arrested when a police officer believes an offense has taken place or is in the process of taking place and you’re taken into custody.
In order to make the arrest the officer must have either:

1. Probable cause, or reasonable suspicion supported by circumstances to justify the officer’s belief that certain facts are probably true
2. Observed the crime in progress, or
3. Have an arrest warrant (usually arrests are made for crimes outside the home and without a warrant ever being issued).

Miranda Warning

The state of Pennsylvania has the burden of proof. You have rights. The officer must inform you of your Miranda rights. If arrested without Miranda rights, nothing you said is admissible as evidence at trial. Theses are your Miranda rights: You must be told you have the right to remain silent and that what you say can be used against you in court. You also have the right to a criminal defense lawyer and to have him or her present during questioning. If you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided. If you do decide to speak during arrest, you may stop at anytime.


The booking process is conducted after the arrest at the jail. Personal information will be taken at this time. The process includes fingerprinting the accused, creating a rap sheet or fingerprint report, taking photographs, confiscating personal items, sometimes conducting a full body search, and being placed in a holding cell. In Pennsylvania you will receive medical screening also. The officer and the prosecutor will prepare the complaint at this time, and you will be processed for the first appearance with a judge.
If charges are not made for lack of evidence, you will be released at that time. If you are charged with a violation, you may not have been arrested but you have been brought to the station for a desk appearance ticket with a date for a court appearance. You will also be interviewed by the Criminal Justice Agency to decide on bail, release without bail or remanding and staying in jail.

Bond and Release

Bail is required to be set within 12 hours of the complaint issuance. All defendants have the right to bail in Pennsylvania. Nights, weekends and holidays may delay the procedure until the next working day. If bail is posted, the defendant is released, expected to appear at court dates until charges are resolved. Some defendants will be released on their own recognizance without bail, or ROR.
If you’re released and you fail to show up, a warrant for your arrest will be issued. Defendants are advised of their rights and bail is reviewed at arraignment, which also can be combined with first appearance.

Preliminary Arraignment

When a complaint is issued, the defendant is either arrested or issued a summons to appear in court for a preliminary arraignment. It will occur within 72 hours of arrest. It is the type of preliminary trial common in Pennsylvania. The preliminary arraignment may take longer due to weekends or holidays. You will receive written charges, bond is set at this time if not already, and a preliminary hearing will be scheduled.

Preliminary Hearing

States have different procedures for determining if a matter can go to trial, either via a preliminary hearing or a grand jury proceeding. Pennsylvania’s pretrial procedure is a preliminary hearing for felonies to determine if evidence is sufficient to charge a defendant.
The preliminary hearing must occur from three to 10 days after arrest. It may be postponed for reasonable circumstances. This is not a guilt or innocence proceeding but will determine if sufficient evidence is available to hold the case for before a judge or jury in the Court of Common Pleas.
This proceeding may deal with a reduction in charges, dismissal of the case or fine assessment if applicable. Bond reduction may be made at this time. The accused is always presumed innocent at this time and will not testify typically.

In Pennsylvania, there are no preliminary trials when a plea has been reached or in petty criminal cases. If the prosecution can’t support the misdemeanor complaint, you may be released but your case isn’t dismissed and will have to come back to court on a date.
Formal Arraignment and Plea Options

A formal arraignment is held at the Court of Common Pleas. The criminal complaint, which contains the charges against you, is formally read at the arraignment. You will be advised of your rights and have a lawyer with you at this time. You reply with a plea in some counties in Pennsylvania, but usually you are not required to do so at this time. At the arraignment, if applicable, you can plead:
1. Guilty
2. Not guilty
3. No contest, where you don’t admit nor deny charges
4. Stand mute, where your plea will be entered and treated as a plea of not guilty
5. Pretrial Conference or Call of the List

Depending upon the county, your next day in court will be pretrial conference. In Franklin for example, you will have Call of the List before pretrial.
Call of the List is when you and your attorney alert the judge to the status of your case. You can request a continuance or plea bargain, or list the case for trial. If you list for trial, you will attend pretrial conference on a later date.

The pretrial conference is like the Call of the List but more complicated. You can request a continuance, plea bargain or list for trial. If listing for trial, you will be given jury selection date and trial date. The judge will settle any issues that come up and set deadlines for jury selection, instructions and motions.


In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea-bargaining in pretrial events. The prosecution and defense will discuss a mutually satisfactory compromise that is subject to court approval. The victim in a criminal case where a plea is reached is notified of the proceedings and has the right to attend and be heard. If no deal is reached you will be charged.

Trial, Verdict and Sentence

The defense has the right to choose whether the case will be tried before a judge or a jury. In Pennsylvania, most criminal defendants request a jury trial. In Pennsylvania a defendant should be brought to trial within 180 days. Prosecution must bring your case to trial within a certain period of time. Non-homicide cases must be ready to try in six months of filing of the felony complaint; misdemeanors, within 90 days.

Pennsylvania judges have sentencing discretion using guidelines, mitigating or aggravating factors, and plea-agreement provisions. Sentences in Pennsylvania can include, house arrest, probation, county incarceration or state incarceration.

Criminal law is complicated and confusing. Since every criminal case is different it i important to speak with an attorney