The DUI Process
The penalties for DUI in Pennsylvania can be severe.
Because a DUI conviction carries “mandatory minimum” jail sentences, fines, and a license suspension, it will have a long-term effect on your family life and your ability to earn a living. It is important to consider that even if you have no “trial issues” which would cause you and your attorney to go to trial, the right attorney can navigate the sentencing process with confidence and efficiency, leading a client to the most positive result possible under the circumstances.
The process of going through the criminal justice system can be intimidating and uncertain. Participation in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program, generally reserved for true first-offenders, may have to be elected even prior to the first hearing in your case. Whether you anticipate participating in ARD, entering a guilty plea, or going to trial, it is imperative that your options be reviewed with a knowledgeable attorney who is familiar with local practice in the county in which your offense occurred. Generally, the case will go through the following process during which your attorney should take all necessary steps to attain the agreed-upon goal.
The defendant is taken into custody and usually released once processing and testing has occurred. A summons arrives in the mail notifying the defendant of the Preliminary Arraignment/Hearing date. This packet of information comes certified mail from the District Court which handles matters from the area in which the defendant was arrested; it will include a criminal complaint with probable cause affidavit, outlining the charges and may or may not include the results of any chemical tests performed. The defendant may also be instructed to have a bail interview and schedule a statutorily mandated Court Reporting Network (CRN) evaluation.
2) Preliminary Arraignment
Some defendants, particularly if they do not have a local address, are kept overnight in a cell after their arrest until they can be arraigned by the on-call Magisterial District Judge. This is not necessarily the District Judge in whose jurisdiction the arrest occurred. Bail will be set either at this time.
3) Preliminary Hearing
A hearing is held to determine whether the Commonwealth can make out a prima facie case against the defendant. This is a much lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt” and simply means that the Commonwealth must prove that it is more likely than not that a crime has been committed by the defendant. If the defendant chooses, he may waive this hearing, which means that he agrees that the charges move forward for further disposition at the Court of Common Pleas level. It is common for charges to be amended or removed at the time scheduled for the Preliminary Hearing in return for a waiver.
4) Formal Arraignment
At the completion of the preliminary hearing, the court sets a date for a Formal Arraignment at the Court of Common Pleas. The date for the filing of Pre-Trial Motions runs from the date of the Formal Arraignment. In most counties, the appearance of the defendant and his attorney can be waived by the filing of documents in advance of the Arraignment date.
5) Pre-Trial Conference
In many counties, a Pre-trial Conference or “Call of the List” is held during which negotiations may occur between the Commonwealth and the Defense and a plea bargain may occur. This is often the first time a prosecutor will be prepared to discuss the facts of a case and a proposed settlement with the defense. Often, a sentencing scheme is agreed upon which will convert the mandatory-minimum jail time into a series of weekends and/or home monitoring to entice the defendant to enter a guilty plea. The withdrawal of other charges may accompany this offer.
Pre-trial motions, such as a motion to suppress the evidence of a chemical test due to a bad automobile stop, are heard either immediately prior to trial, or on a date set prior to trial. In DUI cases, a winning suppression motion usually means that the Commonwealth is left with no evidence with which they can proceed to trial.
A trial is the part of the criminal justice process that is most familiar; it is widely depicted on television and in movies, with great liberties taken with the Rules of Evidence and Procedure. A defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, either by a jury, if the defendant is entitled to a jury trial, or by a judge.
Sentencing may occur in conjunction with a guilty plea or after trial. There are mandatory minimum penalties which apply to any DUI conviction. In some instances, particularly where a defendant is a repeat offender or was involved in an accident with injuries, the Commonwealth seeks to have a sentence greater than the mandatory minimum imposed. In these cases, the Judge may order that a Pre-Sentence investigation be prepared, which will be presented to the Judge in advance of a Sentencing Hearing. The attorneys, defendant, victims, and other affected parties may testify at this hearing, after which the Judge will impose sentence. There are guidelines which exist to guide a judge in determining the appropriate sentence.
9) Post-trial Motions
After a defendant is sentenced, his Post-Sentencing Rights attach. These provide the defendant with various ways to raise remaining issues, such as a motion to reconsider sentence, at the trial level.
The defendant has a right to appeal issues after his sentencing has occurred. If he has entered a guilty plea, this appeal right is severely limited in scope.
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