How does Pennsylvania's court system work? Let us explain

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch

The criminal justice system can be confusing. 

If you're unsure how the system in Pennsylvania works, or need a refresher, here's a brief overview of how court cases are handled. None of this, of course, should be construed as legal advice.

Preliminary arraignment: This hearing, in a Magisterial District Court, is the first step in a criminal case once someone's arrested. A magisterial district judge lets a defendant know what they've been charged with and informs them of their rights, like seeking an attorney. The judge can also set a person's bail. 

Preliminary hearing: Prosecutors bring evidence against a defendant at a preliminary hearing. That include testimony from police and any witnesses to an alleged crime. A defendant's attorney can also introduce evidence, and a defendant can waive this hearing if they want. If the judge decides the prosecution presented enough evidence, the case will be "held for court," or moved on to the next level of courts: the Court of Common Pleas.

Magisterial District Courts can take on less serious cases, like minor traffic offenses, without sending them to Common Pleas.

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Arraignment: The Court of Common Pleas hosts a "formal arraignment," where a judge will again inform a defendant of their charges and rights. The defendant will also enter a plea at the formal arraignment. 

Pretrials/status hearings: Prosecutors, defendants and their attorneys typically go before a common pleas judge multiple times before their case resolves. These hearings can be to discuss motions, evidence and both sides' readiness to go to trial. 

Plea or trial: In many cases, a defendant reaches a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty in exchange for some charges being dropped and a lighter sentence. A defendant can also plead "no contest," which means they aren't admitting guilt but are acknowledging the prosecution's evidence against them. 

If a case goes to trial, it can be a "bench trial" — where one judge hears the case and reaches a verdict — or a "jury trial" with 12 jurors. A jury must vote unanimously to find a defendant guilty of any charge.

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Sentencing: If a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted by a judge or jury, it's up to a common pleas judge to deliver the sentence. There's state sentencing guidelines judges have to follow, which consider the seriousness of the crime plus the defendant's prior criminal record. It breaks down into three sentencing ranges, based on the circumstances of each case:

  • Mitigated range: A less serious sentence.
  • Standard range: A normal sentence.
  • Aggravated range: A more serious sentence. 

Appeal: A defendant can appeal to their common pleas court trial judge for a new trial. If that's denied they can file a notice of appeal in the first level of appellate court, Superior Court. 

Here's a breakdown of the court structure.

  • Tier 1: Magisterial District Court
  • Tier 2: Common Pleas Court 
  • Tier 3: Superior Court/Commonwealth Court*
  • Tier 4: Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Cases from Superior Court and Commonwealth Court can be appealed to the state's Supreme Court. 

*Commonwealth Court deals primarily with civil cases involving state and local government agencies. 

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