Criminal Proceedings in District Justice Courts


Criminal complaints, including traffic and non-traffic citations, are filed with the District Justice by the police departments within each district or by private citizens within that district.

A complaint filed by a private citizen must first be approved by the District Attorney.

Police departments are not now required to have prior approval from the District Attorney in order to file a complaint. The District Attorney, however, has the authority to decline to prosecute if the evidence is determined to be inadequate.

Complaints filed in the District Justice office are classified as summary, misdemeanor, or felony.

A summary case is considered a minor infraction of the law (such as disorderly conduct, traffic violation or underage consumption of alcoholic beverages). The District Justice has jurisdiction in this case and can either dismiss the complaint or impose the penalty prescribed by law without the approval of the District Attorney.

Misdemeanors and felonies (burglaries, robberies, assaults) are more serious infractions. The District Justice has the responsibility to conduct a preliminary hearing to hear the evidence against the defendant. The District Justice must hold the individual for court if he believes the evidence is sufficient to warrant a conviction. The District Justice also establishes the terms and amount of bond for the defendant's release from custody pending the preliminary hearing or trial. The purpose of bond is to guarantee court appearance.

The Criminal Process

When arrested a defendant is brought before the district justice in the community in which the offense occurred. The defendant is informed of the charges being placed against him or her. This is called an arraignment.

When the arrest involves a summary complaint, arraignment usually immediately precedes the hearing on the charges. In the event of a misdemeanor or felony arrest, the arraignment should occur without unnecessary delay. The Defendant also is fingerprinted and photographed. This is normally performed at the Bureau of Criminal Identification in Pittsburgh's Public Safety Building.

The amount of bail is determined at the arraignment to assure the individual's presence at subsequent court hearings. Also the defendant is given personal notice of the date and time of the preliminary hearing.

If the person accused of the criminal violation is not in police custody, the police may obtain a warrant for the individual's arrest from the District Justice. A search warrant also may be issued to the police by the District Justice if the police demonstratemthey have probable cause to suspect that essential evidence in a crime is obtainable from a specific location.

At the preliminary hearing the arresting police will present evidence to substantiate the complaint. If the District Justice deems the evidence to be sufficient to warrant a trial, the individual will be held for court and bail conditions may be reviewed and reset.

If the defendant is held for court, the District Justice will serve personal notice on the defendant when he or she is to appear in the Criminal Division or the Court of Common Pleas for arraignment proceedings prior to trial.

Persons convicted of a summary offense before a District Justice have the right to appeal, within 30 days, to the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas. In the Civil Division the case will be reheard in its entirety. This is called trial de novo.

Persons charged with misdemeanor or felony offenses have the right to be represented by an attorney at all criminal proceedings.

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