Criminal Law

Having a criminal record can interfere with many opportunities, including employment, housing, and education. A prior conviction can also be used against the defendant in a future criminal prosecution, and prevent an individual from traveling outside the United States. Foreign countries can learn about a traveler’s criminal record in a matter of minutes. Because a criminal record can impact so many aspects of an individual’s life, it’s critical to aggressively fight a prosecution.

A crime is any action that violates the law. A criminal conviction can be punished with fines, imprisonment, and other penalties. The repercussions increase with the seriousness of the crime. Criminal offenses are divided into three categories: summary offenses, misdemeanors and felonies, all of which have a possibility of incarceration.

Summary offenses include most traffic infractions and offenses such as disorderly conduct and first-offense shoplifting. Summary charges are brought against an individual through a citation from police or by a summons from a district justice to appear and answer charges.

If the defendant requests a hearing, it will be held before a district justice. If the hearing ends with a guilty verdict and a fine or prison sentence is imposed, the defendant can appeal the decision to the Court of Common Pleas in the county where the charge was filed. The appeal must be timely or the opportunity to appeal will be lost.

Another option for handling summary offenses has been developed. An accelerated rehabilitative disposition, or “ARD,” is designed to rehabilitate as well as punish. Anyone charged with a summary offense should discuss the possibility of ARD with a lawyer prior to any hearing on the matter.

Misdemeanors and felonies are far more serious crimes than summary offenses. Misdemeanors include offenses such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, simple assault, and some types of theft. Charges such as robbery, burglary, rape and murder are more serious crimes charged as felonies.

Defendants charged with misdemeanors or felonies will have a preliminary hearing before a district justice. This is not a trial. The district justice determines only whether the Commonwealth has made a case that deserves to be tried in court. If the district justice orders the defendant to stand trial, the proceeding will occur in the Common Pleas Court of the county where the charges are filed.

Police don’t need to make an arrest to ask brief questions or ask individuals for identification. They also can issue a citation for a summary offense. If an officer reads the individual his or her rights or takes an individual into custody, an arrest has been made.

Resisting arrest is a separate criminal offense. Police can use reasonable force if necessary to make an arrest. Under no circumstances should anyone resist arrest or interfere in the arrest of another individual. People who suspect their rights have been violated should consult with an attorney as quickly as possible.

Many people mistakenly believe that they must receive a Miranda warning prior to being placed under arrest. However, no Miranda warning is required unless an individual is being questioned

Not every police search requires a warrant. If someone gives permission to search them or their property, police don’t need a warrant, and any evidence found can be used in court. Therefore, it is wise not to consent to a warrantless search.

Police do not need a warrant or consent to search someone who has been arrested. Prior to or after an arrest, police can also conduct a “pat-down” without a warrant or consent to check for weapons. Police are also permitted to search the immediate area.

Police also don’t need a warrant or consent if so-called “exigent” circumstances exist. Exigent circumstances arise when police face what reasonably appears to be an emergency which requires an immediate search. This can occur if valuable evidence would otherwise be lost or damaged, or when a criminal suspect could escape before a warrant can be obtained.

Although there are many instances when police can conduct a search without a warrant, some warrantless searches are unlawful. Anyone who feels that police have improperly searched them or their property should discuss the matter with a lawyer.

Criminal suspects have certain rights. The most critical of these are the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present at all stages of the proceedings. Even criminal suspects who haven’t been charged with a crime are protected by these rights.

The most important things to remember when charged with a crime or under investigation are:

Know your rights.
Be courteous and respectful to the police and courts.
Do not give up the right to a preliminary hearing unless a lawyer advises to do so.
Listen to your attorney. If the lawyer advises not to discuss the case with anyone, follow the advice.
Arrange bail as soon as possible. Bail can be posted using a bondsman, cash, or real estate. Registered bondsmen may charge for posting bail. However, if cash or real estate is used, complied with all appearances and the trial is completed, the money will be returned and the real estate will no longer be tied to the case.
A blood, breath, or urine will be required of anyone arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Drivers who refuse to submit to a chemical test after a DUI / DWI arrest will have their licenses suspended for one year and risk incarceration. Police must advise suspected drunk drivers that they have no right to have a lawyer present or to discuss the request for a test with a lawyer.


Having a criminal record – even a relatively minor first offense –can prevent a person from getting or keeping a job. Prior criminal offenses can be used against individuals if they are charged with a later crime. For example, if a person is convicted of shoplifting, a second or subsequent shoplifting offense will be charged as a misdemeanor, not a summary offense. .

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