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Criminal Lawyers in Allegheny County

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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is comprised of 67 counties, each county has a district attorney and a court of common pleas. The district attorney is the chief law enforcement officer for the county while jurisdiction over crimes committed in a county falls to the court of common pleas. In Allegheny County, as in all counties in Pennsylvania, there is also a minor judiciary, called district justices or magistrates. The first steps of any criminal prosecution take place before the minor judiciary.

The following process describes how a prosecution would proceed through the court system in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.



The police investigation may include interviewing the victim(s), witnesses and/or suspects; collecting physical evidence; visiting, viewing, photographing and/or measuring the crime scene; identifying suspects through photo arrays or line-ups, etc.

Following a police investigation of an alleged crime, the police may initiate the criminal process by filing a complaint with the district justice or by making a warrantless arrest followed by the filing of a complaint. The complaint identifies the defendant, lists the crimes charged and contains a brief factual summary upon which the charges are based.

In the event the police decline to file a complaint, a private person is permitted to file a private complaint. However, an Assistant District Attorney must first approve the private complaint before it can proceed. Once approved, the process is the same as if the complaint had been filed by a police officer.

Once the complaint is filed, the presence of the defendant is secured voluntarily, by summons, or compelled, by arrest. The district justice will issue either a summons or a warrant of arrest, depending generally on the seriousness of the offense alleged. Less serious cases proceed with the issuance of a summons which provides notice of the defendant’s scheduled preliminary hearing.

An arraignment is the process by which the defendant is read specific charges against him. It is the first step in the criminal process after arrest. It is a brief hearing. All arraignments are conducted after the suspect is arrested and booked by law enforcement. An arraignment takes place only after the prosecuting attorney decides to file charges. The defendant must appear before the district justice for a preliminary arraignment. At this proceeding the defendant is provided with a copy of the complaint and advised of his rights; also at this time a preliminary hearing is scheduled, not less than three days but not more than ten days hence. The district attorney will not be represented at a preliminary arraignment.

This involves a meeting between the prosecution and the defense. Topics discussed normally include plea bargain opportunities, strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutions case, and intangible factors of the case, such as the defendant's character and past history.

The preliminary hearing is also normally convened before a district justice. At the Preliminary Hearing the Commonwealth must present a prima facie case, or in other words, they must show evidence that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is probably the perpetrator of that crime. The judge then determines whether sufficient evidence exists to send the case to the upper court for trial. The judge reviews whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and whether there is probable cause to believe the person in front of the court is the one who committed the crime.

Rarely does a judge overturn the prosecution and dismiss the case. In fact, the prosecution or judge can add additional charges to the case at this hearing. Although the police officer may prosecute the preliminary hearing before the district justice, in Allegheny County an assistant district attorney will usually appear and present the case on behalf of the Commonwealth. If a prima facie case is presented, the case will be held for court. If a prima facie case is not presented, the defendant should be discharged.

After holding a case for court, the district justice will send notice to the county clerk of courts who in turn will notify the district attorney. The district attorney’s office will then file a formal charging document, called an information, with the clerk of courts. The information will specify in particular counts the offenses charged against the defendant. At this stage, the district attorney may exercise discretion and terminate the prosecution by declining to file an information or by adding or deleting charges.

The next proceeding is the formal arraignment, which may or may not occur before a judge of the court of common pleas. In Allegheny County, no judge is present. The defendant is provided with a copy of the information and advised of his rights, including his rights to file various pretrial pleadings. Generally, the district attorney is not represented at formal arraignment. All pretrial motions, including requests for a bill of particulars and discovery, and motions for continuance, severance or joinder, suppression, etc., should be filed within thirty days after the formal arraignment. It is the obligation of the district attorney’s office to respond to the defendant’s pretrial pleadings.

The next step is the pretrial conference. Generally, the defendant and his lawyer and an assistant district attorney will appear before the assigned judge and the course of disposition will be determined. All other pretrial matters should also be resolved at the pretrial conference. The defendant may elect to plead guilty, or to proceed to a jury or non-jury trial.

A defendant entering a plea of not guilty may choose to be tried by a jury of twelve citizens or by the judge alone. At trial, the case for the Commonwealth is presented by an assistant district attorney who must establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is under no obligation to present evidence or testimony but may do so if he wishes. If tried by a jury, the jury must return a unanimous verdict; if tried non-jury, the judge must return the verdict. If a defendant is found not guilty, he will be immediately discharged. If found guilty, the defendant may be sentenced immediately or sentencing may be deferred pending a pre-sentence investigation into the defendant’s background. If sentencing is deferred, the defendant is subsequently returned to court and sentenced; at any sentencing hearing, an assistant district attorney will appear and present the Commonwealth’s position.


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