Criminal Procedure in Pennsylvania

The following summarizes the process for the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. Individuals charged with a crime including driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances, assault, drug offenses, etc. should have a skilled PA criminal defense attorney assist them through all stages of PA criminal procedure.



First, a crime is committed, the police are notified and a police investigation is commenced. The police investigation often includes victim and witness interviews, suspect interviews, collecting evidence, etc.


Criminal Complaint

If the police believe that enough evidence has been collected, the police begin the criminal process with the filing of a complaint with the magisterial district court or by making a warrantless arrest followed by the filing of a complaint. The complaint will list the charges, identify the defendant, and describe the facts surrounding the matter.  If the police do not file a complaint, an individual may file a private complaint. This type of complaint must be approved by the local district attorney’s office for approval.


Summons or Arrest Warrant

After the complaint is filed, a summons compels the voluntary surrendering of the defendant.  Otherwise, an arrest will force the defendant to appear.  For crimes that are less serious, the court will typically issue the summons, providing notice of the date and time for the defendant to appear at his or her preliminary hearing.


Preliminary Arraignment

If an arrest warrant is issued or if the process began with a warrantless arrest, a preliminary arraignment is necessary. The defendant must appear before the district justice at the magisterial district court at which time he or she is given the complaint. A preliminary hearing is scheduled at this time.


Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing takes place at the magisterial district court. The district justice, after a hearing, must decide whether the Commonwealth established a prima facie case. A prima facie case is established when the Commonwealth presents enough evidence to show that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is the likely perpetrator of that crime. The Commonwealth must not prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at this stage of the process. The police officer or an assistant district attorney presents the case in front of the district justice.


Information Filed

After the preliminary hearing, the district justice will send notice to the county clerk of courts. The district attorney will then be notified and will file a formal charge referred to as an Information. This document will specify the charges and counts.


Formal Arraignment

At the formal arraignment, the defendant enters a plea.  If the defendant enters a “not guilty” plea, the defendant is provided with a copy of the Information and advised of certain rights.  Often, a defendant can waive the arraignment and have a plea automatically entered.  Following the formal arraignment, the defendant can proceed with a request for a bill of particulars and discovery.


Pretrial Conference

A pretrial conference is often assigned to a judge to determine the course of the future proceedings and the course of disposition. All pretrial matters are usually determined at this stage.


Trial or Plea Disposition

If the defendant enters a plea of “not guilty”, then the case proceeds to trial. A trial may be decided by a judge or by a jury comprised of twelve individuals depending on the crime. The Commonwealth must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and, if tried by jury, the jury must return a unanimous verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, he or she 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 for a sentencing hearing.



Sentencing in Pennsylvania depends on the crime and is subject to the discretion of the judge. The judge must follow mandatory minimum sentences, when applicable, if the defendant is convicted of a specified crime. The judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report and additional evidence. The judge will use the “sentencing guidelines” established in Pennsylvania to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. The judge may consider fines, probation, community service, etc.


Montgomery County, PA Criminal Defense Law Firm

The Martin Law Firm is located in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. The Martin Law Firm represents those charged with a crime or offense in Pennsylvania.  Contact the Martin Law Firm today for a free case evaluation.