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In Pennsylvania, summary charges are the least serious charges in the criminal justice and traffic law systems. The majority of summary offenses are traffic offenses but some criminal charges are summary offenses as well.
If charged with a summary, the police officer will typically write you a citation without arresting you, this is what occurs in the majority of traffic stops. In other cases, an ordinary citizen may file summary offense charges against you through the private criminal complaint process. You have 10 days to plead not guilty to the charge. Be sure to follow the instructions on the back of the citation. When pleading not guilty, you will be required to post what is called collateral. The court requires you to pay a portion of your citation in advance. If you are found not guilty at the court hearing, your money will be refunded to you.
When you are charged with a criminal or traffic summary offense, your local Magisterial District Judge will have jurisdiction over the case. Magisterial District Court is more informal than the Court of Common Pleas. District judges are not required to be lawyers but many are. On the day of your case, your attorney should speak with the police officer or other party before the hearing and request that he or she dismiss the charge, allow you to plead to a lesser charge or reduce the fine. If the police officer or opposing party is not receptive to this, it may be in your best interests to take your summary case to a trial. A typical summary trial lasts under an hour. The prosecuting party and any witnesses that he or she wishes to call will take the witness stand first. Your attorney will be given the opportunity to cross-examine these witnesses. Once the Commonwealth finishes its case-in-chief, you and any of your witnesses will take the witness stand. You and your witnesses will also be subject to cross-examination by the police officer. At that point, both sides will be given the opportunity to make closing arguments before the district judge. You will deliver your closing argument first and the prosecuting side will deliver their argument last. Once closing arguments have concluded, the judge will render a decision.
If you retain a skilled trial attorney in a summary case, you have the advantage from the start. In the majority of cases, a police officer will be prosecuting the case. Very rarely will an Assistant District Attorney show up to prosecute your case in District Court. Police officers are not attorneys and have limited training in the rules of evidence and technicalities of the law.
If you are found guilty of a summary offense to District Court, you have 30 days to appeal your case to the Court of Common Pleas. Even if you plead guilty to the summary offense before consulting an attorney, you still have a right to appeal your case to the Court of Common Pleas but the deadline for this appeal may be shorter than the 30 day deadline if you’re found guilty at trial.
Common Pleas judges are required to be licensed attorneys. Typically, an Assistant District Attorney will also be in court to assist the police in prosecuting summary appeal matters. In the Court of Common Pleas you have the right to a trial de novo. This means that you get a new trial and get to start all over again. You will be able to go through the entire process that occurred at District Court. The same rules of evidence and procedure apply. The Assistant District Attorney has the ability to offer you a plea bargain on your summary appeal trial date.
At a summary appeal you will often find yourself before a more impartial and more highly trained judge, but you will also be up against a more highly trained prosecutor.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a summary offense, make sure to contact Attorney James Madsen at his Northampton and Lehigh County Office.
Attorney Madsen represents people in the Allentown, Bethlehem & Easton areas in a variety of summary offense and traffic matters. A few of these include:
Madsen Law Offices is located in Easton, Pennsylvania and represents clients throughout the Lehigh Valley, including Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, Jim Thorpe, Stroudsburg and other outlying areas.