Pennsylvania Criminal Process: A General Overview

When confronted with criminal allegations, it is difficult for a defendant to understand the process. Below you will find a general sequential description of “general” steps of the criminal process. Please note that this does not include many of the variations or alternative hearings that may need to happen based on your specific case. For example, there may need to be a suppression hearing challenging the legitimacy of a stop or a habeas hearing.

It is important to remember that each case is different and there are various options or paths that can be taken to achieve positive results. It is in your best interest to consult with a seasoned criminal defense attorney!

Criminal Act Committed

At this stage criminal activity takes place. The police will be notified and commence an investigation. A police officer can be notified by witnesses or actually witness the event taking place. For example, a police office may witness a driver of a motor vehicle swerving on the road and pull over (with adequate probable cause) the driver for suspicion of Driving Under the Influence (DUI). On the other hand, the police may be called because of a criminal event. For example, if there is a fight between two people and the police are called due to noise and concern. They will speak with witnesses and gather relevant information and evidence.

Criminal Complaint Filed or Citation Issued

Once the police investigate the incident and determine that an alleged crime has been committed, the police will initiate the criminal process by filing a criminal complaint and affidavit of probable cause with the elected Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) responsible for that jurisdiction. The complaint and affidavit will set forth the facts that support the elements of the crime(s) committed.

Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the MDJ will issue either a summons or an arrest warrant. A summons will be mailed to the defendant and specify the time and place for the preliminary arraignment or hearing. If an arrest warrant is issued, the defendant will either turn themselves in or be “served” (arrested) by the appropriate authorities. Under both scenarios (summons or warrant), the defendant has been charged with a crime and must answer the complaint before the MDJ.

If a summary citation is filed, the defendant will have a very specific and limited time frame to notify the MDJ of their intention moving forward. The defendant must state whether they wish to have a summary trial or simply plead guilty and pay the fine. This process is applicable to summary offenses (minor traffic offense) and non-traffic summary offense (underage drinking).

If the defendant wishes to have a summary trial, the MDJ will set a date and notify all parties involved. The trial will be held at the MDJ court and be a complete mini-trial. Both sides (commonwealth represented by the initiating police officer & defendant) are afforded the opportunity to put forth their version of the events through direct testimony and cross examination.

To be found guilty, the MDJ must find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Beyond all reasonable doubt means there cannot be any doubt in the mind of the MDJ that the defendant committed every element of each criminal charge. It is imperative that you know and understand every element of each charge and the full meaning defined by the courts. Cases hinge on the definition of single words and sometimes seemingly irrelevant or trivial facts.

Preliminary Arraignment

The preliminary arraignment is the time in which the MDJ will notify the criminal defendant of the charges against them, of their rights, and the date and time of the preliminary hearing. Each MDJ handles the specific procedures of the preliminary arraignment slightly different. It is important to know the local rules and adhere to them strictly.

Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing is the time and place in which the Commonwealth must present sufficient evidence for a MDJ to find a “prima facie” case against the criminal defendant. This means that the Commonwealth must establish each element actually occurred and the criminal defendant is probably the individual who committed the offense(s). The proceeding is quite similar to a trial, however; the burden is significantly lower.

If the MDJ finds a prima facie case exists, the case will be “bound over” (proceed forward) to the Court of Common Pleas. If the MDJ finds a prima facie case does not exist, the charges will be dismissed. It is important to note that this is not an all or nothing event. For example, if there are three charges against you, the MDJ may find a prima facie case exists for two but not the other. This would mean that the two charges will move forward and the third dismissed.

The defendant has a right to a preliminary hearing. As such, the defendant may decide that it is in their best interest to “waive” (forgo the hearing altogether) the hearing. Some potential reasons include: a negotiated plea has been reached; desire to enter into pretrial diversionary program (ARD, ASP, STOP); or the defendant has decided that there is sufficient evidence to move forward without a hearing.

Formal Arraignment

The formal arraignment process differs from county to county. Essentially, the principle is the same. It is the point at which the court brings both parties (Commonwealth & Defendant) together to advise the defendant of the charges against them and set forth the time frame for pre-trial motions and discovery requests. In some counties this process can be “waived” (forgo appearance at this event) and a Pretrial Conference scheduled instead. In the remaining counties, this cannot be waived and your appearance is mandatory.

Pretrial Conference or Status Hearing

The pretrial conference is designed to determine the path to disposition the case will take. The conference is essentially a meeting of the Commonwealth and Defense counsel before the presiding Judge. All unresolved pretrial issues should be addressed at this conference. Additionally, the defendant may elect to enter a plea of guilty at this point and move for immediate or deferred sentencing.

Guilty Plea

There is no obligation for a criminal defendant to plead guilty; however, if they elect to do so, a guilty plea hearing will be scheduled. The defendant, representative of the District Attorney’s office and the presiding Judge will be present. The presiding Judge will determine, typically through colloquy, that the defendant is entering their plea “knowingly and voluntarily.” The Judge will either accept the plea or reject. If the Judge accepts the plea, the defendant may be sentenced immediately or may request a deferred sentence date.


The trial is the time and place that the presiding Judge or Jury is charged with determining guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. This means that the Judge or Jury must not have a single doubt in their mind that the defendant has committed the alleged acts. The Commonwealth through the District Attorney must prove the case with evidence and testimony to establish each element of each offense. The defendant need not prove their innocence; however, it may be necessary to put forth evidence to contradict the Commonwealth’s position.

At the conclusion of the trial, the Judge or Jury must return a verdict. A Jury must return a unanimous verdict. If the defendant is found not guilty, they will be discharged immediately. If the defendant is found guilty, the defendant may be sentenced immediately or may request a deferred sentence date.


As mentioned above, sentencing may happen either immediately after a guilty plea or be scheduled at a later date. Sentencing is the time and place where the presiding Judge will impose the penalty for committing the crime(s). Generally, the Judge may sentence a defendant to prison, probation, payment of restitution, accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD), alternative sentencing program (ASP), second time offenders program (STOP), house arrest, work release, state intermediate punishment (SIP), county intermediate punishment (CIP), state boot camp program (BC), and/or any combination of the above. This list is not meant to be all inclusive. There may be many other options available.

The sentence will depend on several factors including; mandatory minimums/maximums, prior record score, offense gravity score, offense classification, mitigating or aggravating factors (drugs in a school zone or weapons enhancement), character testimony, and/or presentence investigation (PSI) recommendations. A sentencing Judge will consider all relevant factors and impose a sentence accordingly.