What to Expect: Introduction
For individual's not otherwise familiar with the Criminal Justice system, their involvement therein can be overwhelming. Through any stage of the litigation, it is important for a client to listen to the advice of their appointed attorney. A defendant is required and expected to personally appear at all scheduled court hearings and proceedings. It is incumbent upon the defendant to make arrangements for this to occur and plan accordingly since the Court has priority over any other matter currently pending.
If at any point in the proceedings a defendant fails to appear for a scheduled court hearing a bench warrant will issue for their arrest. If an arrest warrant is issued then it is important to have such warrant lifted either by contacting your attorney to schedule proceedings or to contact Butler County Court Administration 724-284-5200) to schedule an appearance before the Court.
Major Procedural Events
Read the general description of the major procedural events in the course of any criminal case:
- Call of the List or Judicial Conference
- Driving Under the Influence Court
- Formal Arraignment
- Jury Selection
- Post-Sentence Motions & Appeals
- Preliminary Hearing
- Status Conference
Butler County has two kinds of hearings that occur immediately before jury selection and trial. These are called Call of the List or Judicial Conciliation. Again, this is a formal court proceeding whereby the attorney and client can again meet and decide how the case proceeds with the Commonwealth.
Generally there three outcomes to this proceeding:
- The Defendant may enter into a negotiated plea agreement.
- The Defendant may be scheduled to appear for jury selection and ultimately scheduled for a jury trial.
- May have a continuance to later scheduled Call of the List or Judicial Conciliation date.
Given the criminal caseload of the Butler County Criminal Court, these proceedings are lengthy and it is important for a defendant to make the necessary arrangements to be available all day.
In Butler County, if you have a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Case that has been held over by the District Judge, then instead of a Formal Arraignment date you will receive a date for DUI Court. In these types of cases, DUI Court serves as Formal Arrangement. A Defendant will be advised of important rights to request Discovery and file pretrial motions.
Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD)
If the District Attorney's office has offered a client the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) you will be immediately accepted into the program at DUI Court. If you are not eligible for the ARD program you may either accept a plea offer at this time (and sentenced at the same time in DUI Court) or you can remove your case from DUI Court and have it follow the traditional procedural track for trial. At this point, you will receive your various trial court dates.
Formal Arraignment is essentially the formal beginning of a criminal case before the Butler County Court of Common Pleas. This hearing is mandatory under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure and is the beginning point for all of the timelines as provided under the rules of criminal procedure. In Butler County, a Common Pleas Judge will advise every defendant as to their rights and pre-trial procedures for requesting discovery and the filing of various pre-trial motions.
At the Hearing
At this hearing, a defendant will receive formal notice of the criminal charges filed against them. A defendant will also receive a criminal case scheduling form. These dates include Status Conference, Call of the List or Judicial Conference dates, Jury Selection dates, and Trial dates.
Often times, a Defendant receives an initial plea offer to resolve the criminal case. Defendants may have the option of entering into a plea agreement on the day of Arraignment. Should the Defendant choose to enter a plea, the agreement is entered into the record and the Defendant receives a Sentence Court Notice in place of the above-mentioned dates.
At the same time as Formal Arrangement, the Public Defender's Office will automatically file for Discovery in your criminal case. Following the receipt of Discovery from the Commonwealth, the assigned attorney will review it and may file any pre-trial legal motions within the timeframes provided under the rules of criminal procedure. Also, given the nature of the criminal case, it may be necessary for the attorney to meet with their client to review discovery in person and further discuss the course of their legal defense.
This is the formal proceeding whereby a jury is selected to preside over a Defendant's criminal trial. This is an involved proceeding and it is important that you personally appear and work with your defense counsel in this matter.
Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, and given the circumstances of the case, a post-sentence motion may be filed to raise defined legal issues. It is important for a Defendant to seek the advice of counsel in this regard as to whether or not such a Post-Sentence Motion is appropriate.
Negotiated Plea Agreement
Defendants who enter into a negotiated plea agreement and are sentenced by the Court in accordance with their plea significantly limit their appellate rights. When a Defendant is found guilty by way of jury trial or non-jury trial, the Defendant may have further grounds to raise issues on appeal regarding potential errors occurring during the course of their trial or legal decisions regarding pre-trial motions. It is important to discuss any appellate issues with your appointed attorney. These issues are case-specific and need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
All appeals will be filed and proceed in accordance with the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure. Direct appeals from criminal cases are then heard by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. In very limited circumstances, and following a specific request for review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may decide to hear cases that contain issues of the first impression under Pennsylvania law or resolve issues of conflicting case law. The appellate process in Pennsylvania is procedurally complicated and it is highly recommended that you have the advice of legal counsel at all stages of this litigation.
After you have been preliminary arraigned by the Magisterial District Justice (MDJ), either in person or via video-conference from the police station or the Butler County Prison, or after charges have been filed in the mail, a preliminary hearing will be promptly scheduled. This hearing will be held at the District Judge's Office as listed on the case scheduling paperwork received. At this hearing, the District Judge will only determine whether or not the Commonwealth has established a prima facie case. The District Judge will view the evidence as presented from the Commonwealth to determine whether or not a crime has been committed and whether or not the defendant may have been involved in the commission of that crime.
The District Judge will view the evidence in a light most favorable to the Commonwealth, which is a lower burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required at trial to convict an individual. Generally, the Defendant does not present any evidence or testimony at this stage since the District Judge is not permitted to determine issues of witness credibility.
Conclusion of the Hearing
At the conclusion of the hearing, the District Judge may chose to dismiss all or some of the charges, or hold some or all of the charges over to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings. At that point a client will be required to sign various paperwork, and receive notice of their next criminal court date, which is Formal Arraignment. Additionally, the District Judge will preside over a defendant's bond conditions. The District Judge has the authority to modify an individual's bond or place restrictions upon individuals through their bond.
Following a Defendant's plea of guilty, nolo contendere, or a finding of guilt following trial, the Defendant proceeds to Sentence Court. At this proceeding, a Defendant receives their formal sentence by the Court and the Defendant, or counsel has the opportunity to address the Court regarding sentencing issues. Regardless, after sentencing and without any further post-sentence motions or appeal proceedings, this is the final stage of the criminal process and the Defendant must serve their sentence as imposed by the Court.
Status Conferences are important to the attorneys and defendants in any criminal case. It is a time whereby the attorney and client will meet and discuss the pending matters. It is also a time when the attorneys can engage in formal negotiations with the Commonwealth as to a negotiated plea agreement.
The Court is available to take negotiated plea agreements on this date. Again, if that occurs, the Court will provide a defendant with a notice to appear at Sentence Court. If a defendant does not enter a plea, then they must appear at their next scheduled court date.
This is the formal proceeding whereby a Defendant is adjudicated either guilty or innocent of the criminal charges in which they are accused. There are two types of trials, jury trials, and non-jury trials.
The type of trial is governed by the type of charges and the possible sentence which is carried. A trial by jury is one whereby guilt or innocence is determined by a jury selected from the citizens of Butler County. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until this jury finds them guilty of the offenses charged. The standard of review is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard of review under the law. For a jury to find a defendant guilty, it must unanimously agree upon the verdict.
Following a verdict, the Court will release the jury and either schedule a Sentence Court date for the Defendant or dismiss charges on a finding of not guilty and release the Defendant. It is important that you work closely with defense counsel throughout the trial process.
The second type of trial is a non-jury trial or trial by a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas. The Judge acts as the fact-finder and rules upon the legal issues presented at trial. Although the standard of review is the same, the Judge and the judge alone decides guilt or innocence.