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Preliminary Hearings in Pennsylvania DUI & Criminal Cases

Lehigh Valley Criminal Defense Lawyers

Preliminary Hearings in Pennsylvania DUI & Criminal Cases

What is a Preliminary Hearing in Pennsylvania? - An explanation by a Criminal and DUI Defense Attorney in Northampton & Lehigh County

Purpose of the Preliminary Hearing in Pennsylvania

The first evidentiary stage of any criminal case is the Preliminary Hearing.  The Preliminary will be held at the magisterial district court.  If the case continues past the Preliminary Hearing, all other court dates will be at the court of common pleas.

The Preliminary Hearing is a probable cause hearing.  The burden the Commonwealth must meet to proceed past the Preliminary Hearing is exceptionally low and the judge is required to believe all evidence presented by the Commonwealth regardless as to how implausible it may seem.  However, the Preliminary Hearing is a critical stage of any criminal case because it allows us to test the evidence the Commonwealth may have against us and to pin down the stories of any possible witnesses so that they may not change them later when they are better prepared by the Commonwealth.

Burden of Proof at a Preliminary Hearing

While the Commonwealth is required to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.  The Commonwealth is only required to make a Prima Facie case at the Preliminary Hearing.  Different legal professionals will describe the definition of Prima Facie in different ways, the dictionary definition is “based on the first impression; accepted as correct until proved otherwise” but the most common explanation provided in the legal context is that a judge must be convinced that “after assuming all evidence presented by the Commonwealth is true, it is more likely than not that a crime was committed and more likely than not that the defendant is the one that committed the crime.”

Defendant’s Rights at a Preliminary Hearing in Pennsylvania

We have five (5) important rights at a Preliminary Hearing, including the right to:

  1. Be represented by counsel,
  2. Cross-examine witnesses,
  3. Inspect physical evidence offered against us,
  4. Call witness on our own behalf, offer evidence on our own behalf, and testify,
  5. Make a stenographic or electronic recording of the hearing. (at our own expense)

A Defendant may give up his or her right to a Preliminary Hearing and thus some or all of the above rights.  This practice is called “waiver” and is often a condition imposed by the Commonwealth for acceptance of a plea offer or diversionary program.

Presentation of Evidence by the Defense

Despite having the right to testify and present evidence at the Preliminary Hearing, the Defense rarely does so because the judge, at this stage, is required to believe the Commonwealth’s evidence and disbelieve ours if they conflict or lead different conclusions.  Further, from the Defense perspective, the very purpose of the Preliminary Hearing is to probe for weaknesses in the Commonwealth’s case and to pin down testimony of witnesses so that they may not change their testimony, to the Commonwealth’s advantage later.  There is no obligation upon the Defendant to subject his case to the same scrutiny at the Preliminary Hearing and no advantage provided to a Defendant who does so voluntarily.  Therefore, presentation of evidence by the Defense at a Preliminary Hearing is ill advised.

Plea Offers & Negotiations

The Commonwealth may present a plea offer at the Preliminary Hearing.  If an offer is presented by the Commonwealth, it will be conditioned upon waiving or foregoing the Preliminary Hearing.  Even if an agreement is reached regarding a plea or diversionary program, in most cases an additional court date called Formal Arraignment will need to be scheduled to formalize the plea.  As specific plea offers may be made at the Preliminary Hearing, but rarely sooner, these decisions must often be made with little advance notice.  If such an offer is made, we will discuss it at your Preliminary Hearing.

To Waive or Not to Waive a Preliminary Hearing

Whether or not to waive a Preliminary Hearing is not always an easy decision.  Certainly, there is never a reason to waive the Preliminary Hearing if nothing is offered by the Commonwealth in return.  While the Commonwealth successfully meets its burden in most Preliminary Hearings, the Preliminary Hearing remains a critical stage of the process for any case that has a likelihood of going to trial or where there may be suppression issues arising from illegal police conduct.

After The Preliminary Hearing

Ideally your case will be disposed of at the Preliminary Hearing, but this is rarely achieved.  After the Preliminary Hearing we will have a much better idea as to the best way to proceed with your case.  The Preliminary Hearing may give rise to suppression motions, habeas corpus motions, or other avenues of defending your case.  Conversely, after a Preliminary Hearing it may become clearer that seeking a favorable plea agreement is in your best interest.  Regardless as to the eventual path your case will take, the next court date will be the Formal Arraignment.  Formal Arraignment will be held at the court of common pleas and will be the subject of a separate fee agreement.

Allentown, Bethlehem & Easton DUI Lawyer FAQs

Commonly asked Questions regarding DUI in Lehigh & Northampton County, Answered by our Easton DUI Lawyers.

What is DUI ARD? Am I eligible for DUI ARD?

First time offenders, or those whose first offense is over 10 years old, may be eligible for the DUI ARD program. ARD stands for Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition and the program has a number of benefits to those charged with first-offense DUIs.

The DUI ARD program can often greatly reduce the license suspension that may result from a Lehigh County or Northampton County DUI conviction and also an individual to completely avoid the mandatory minimum DUI prison sentences and jailtime. Ask our Northampton County DUI Lawyers for more information.

Lehigh County, Monroe County and Northampton County all offer the DUI ARD program but the requirements in each county differ greatly. Some counties will not allow DUI ARD if your BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) is above a certain level while other counties may not allow ARD if you are charged with certain other offenses along with the DUI. In many cases, our Easton DUI Attorneys may be able to overcome the exceptions to ARD admission.

While DUI ARD is generally the best option in most cases, it is not always the best option for everyone. In certain, rare, cases you may actually be able to avoid a license suspension completely by not accepting DUI ARD. Speak with our Northampton County DUI Defense Lawyers in Easton, Pennsylvania for more details.

Can I get House Arrest for DUI?

Whether or not House Arrest will be an option in your DUI case depends on a few factors, not least of which is whether the DUI occurred in Northampton County or Lehigh County. Lehigh County is fairly liberal in granting House Arrest but may often double the DUI sentence from what it would be without House Arrest. On the other hand, Northampton County very rarely offers House Arrest outside of its DUI ASP Program. Ask our Northampton County DUI Defense Attorneys in Easton for more information.

What are the different DUI Sentencing options?

While ARD is the only method available to completely remove mandatory minimum sentences and convictions, many other programs exist to make sentences more tolerable. These programs and their availability may differ from Lehigh County to Northampton County.

• House Arrest – DUI House Arrest allows an individual to serve a sentence from the comfort of their residence. When on House arrest, you will be able to go to work, school and run errands but you may be required to operate on a set schedule approved by the DUI probation or parole department.

• Work Release – DUI Work Release allows an individual to maintain their employment and attend priority personal obligations but requires time not spend working or doing other pre-approved activities to be spent in a community corrections center. Some counties also allow individuals to take periods of up to 48 hours of furlough or “vacation” time to visit with family members and sleep at home.

• ASP – Northampton County typically does not permit a House Arrest only sentence but allows for a quick step-down program of a brief period in actual jail, followed by a period of Work Release and finally a period of House Arrest.

• TCAP – TCAP is a unique treatment program oriented towards those with serious drug and alcohol problems who have been charged with a third offense DUI. While TCAP may reduce a one (1) year mandatory minimum sentence to 90 days, the incarceration and intensive treatment makes maintenance of employment all but impossible. For this reason, given the choice, many defendants may opt for a long sentence that offers immediate work release.

Contact our Northampton County DUI Defense Lawyers in Easton for more information.

What is the Northampton County DUI ASP Program?

ASP stands for Alternative Sentencing Program and is available for many Second Offense DUIs in Northampton County DUI Court.

It allows a 30 day DUI sentence, that would otherwise be served in prison, to be structured with 7 days spent in the West Easton Work Release Detention Center and the remaining 23 days of the DUI sentence served on House Arrest.

DUI ASP also allows the 90 day mandatory minimum DUI sentence to be structured in such a way as to allow for 7 days spent in Northampton County Prison, 23 days spent in the West East DUI Treatment Center and the remaining 60 days to be spent in DUI House Arrest.

Speak with one of our Easton DUI Attorneys in Northampton County regarding your eligibility for the Northampton DUI ASP Program.

How do I avoid jail time for a DUI in Pennsylvania?

All DUI’s except for first offense, lowest tier, DUIs have a mandatory minimum jail sentence. However, jailtime can be completely avoided via the ARD program for first offense DUIs. Jailtime in second offense DUIs can be avoided or reduced via alternative sentencing programs such as ASP or house arrest.

How long do you lose your license for DUI in Pennsylvania?

A first offense, low tier, DUI in Pennsylvania has no license suspension. Other first offense DUIs have a one year license suspension but these can be reduced to 30 to 60-days via ARD. Most other DUIs have a license suspension ranging from 1-year to 18-months.

Stages of a DUI Case in Easton, Allentown & Bethlehem

The various stages of Lehigh & Northampton County DUI Case you will attend with your Lehigh Valley DUI Attorney

Filing of Charges

A Northampton County DUI case, like a Lehigh County criminal case, begins with the filing of the charging paperwork in the Magisterial District Court. The District Court serves as the gatekeeper for the Court or Common Pleas and does not decide guilt or innocence.

Preliminary Arraignment

The Preliminary Arraignment is the first court date a defendant must attend in a Lehigh County or Northampton County DUI case. At the preliminary Arraignment the MDJ will set bail on the DUI charges. If an arrest warrant has issued, this will occur prior to the preliminary hearing. If a preliminary hearing was scheduled via summons, the Preliminary Arraignment will occur simultaneous to the Preliminary Hearing.

Preliminary Hearing

In a Lehigh County or Northampton County DUI Case, preliminary hearings are the first opportunity for the Defense to test the evidence the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania plans to bring against them. While the burden the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania must meet at this level is very low, it is a critical stage of the defense because it allows your Lehigh & Northampton County DUI Attorney the opportunity to lay the strategic groundwork that may make or break a DUI defense in the upper courts. You should never waive a preliminary hearing without a DUI attorney from Easton, Allentown or Bethlehem.

Formal Arraignment

Formal Arraignment is the first court appearance in the Court of Common Pleas during a Lehigh County or Northampton County DUI case. The purpose of the Formal Arraignment is to inform defendants of certain rights they have and deadlines in their case. If negotiations by your DUI Attorney have led to a favorable plea agreement in your DUI case, a plea may be entered at this court date

Pre-Trial Motions & Hearings

Depending on the individual Lehigh Valley DUI case, any of the following types of court hearings may occur after formal arraignment but before a trial:

• Diversionary Program Hearing – Diversionary Programs allow defendants a path through the criminal justice system that does not risk the chance of conviction. First time offenders may be eligible for the DUI ARD program. Other defendant’s may be eligible for Mental Health Court regardless of whether they have prior convictions.

• Habeas Corpus Hearing – A Habeas Corpus hearing, like a preliminary hearing, may be held to contest the sufficiency of the Commonwealth’s DUI evidence prior to a trial.

• Suppression Hearing – A suppression hearing may be held to have evidence illegally obtained by the police ruled inadmissible at trial. This usually relates to the DUI stop itself or the blood draw in a Lehigh Valley DUI case.

• Guilty Plea – If the Commonwealth and the defendant agree upon the terms of a guilty plea in Lehigh Valley DUI case, a plea may occur at any time throughout the DUI court process

DUI Trial

In many DUI trials, cases proceed in front of a jury. However, sometimes it may be best to opt for a non-jury trial. Non-jury trials are most often used when the nature of the crime is one that risks a jury finding someone guilty based upon emotion rather than facts.

If the case precedes as a jury trial the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney will question potential jurors. Each side, without any justification, can eliminate a certain number of jurors. Another number of potential jurors can be eliminated based on a list of legal justifications. Eventually, through this process, a jury is reached and seated for trial.

After a jury is chosen, the trial begins with opening statements.

Because the government has the burden of proof, the prosecutor is allowed to make his opening statement first. The defense will then have the option of making an opening statement or waiting until after the prosecution rests its case.

Defense lawyers usually opt to deliver opening statements immediately after the prosecution so that jurors can examine the government’s evidence under the defense’s theory of the case.

After the opening statement(s), each side has the opportunity to present its case.

The prosecution must present its case first. During this time the government presents evidence and elicits testimony from its witnesses. The defense is entitled to cross-examine each witness that the government calls. The prosecution must establish each charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

When the prosecution rests, the defense presents evidence to the jury. If the prosecution’s case is weak, the defense may argue to have the case dismissed at this point. If the motion is denied the defense will go forwards with its case.

After the prosecution and criminal defense lawyer have rested their case, each side will have the opportunity to make a closing argument. The defense lawyer delivers the first argument and the prosecution follows him or her.

The defendant may testify as a witness in his or her defense. However, doing so opens the door for the prosecution to attempt to discredit the witness and in many cases allows the prosecution to bring up harmful information from the defendant’s past.

While the prosecution must establish its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defense has no obligation to present a case. When advantageous the defense may rely solely upon raising a reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case.

After the closing arguments, the judge will read specific instructions to the jury outlining the legal standards necessary to decide if the defendant is to be found guilty or not guilty. The jury then leaves the courtroom to deliberate the case.

If all jurors cannot reach a unanimous decision, the jury is “hung,” and the case may be dismissed or it may be tried in front of a new jury.

Let us help you!

If you need any legal assistance in the Lehigh Valley, please feel free to contact us.  Our Easton Law Office will get back to you within one business day.  Or, just call us now.

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Lehigh & Northampton County DUI Defense Staff