Q. Why does it sometimes take so long for a case to reach a conclusion?
A. If the defendant desires to plead guilty, a case can be concluded within six months of being filed. If a defendant wants to contest the charges and go to trial, it can take a year or more. There are many reasons for delays: due to caseloads, it takes time to schedule hearings or to schedule attorneys and experts, time may be needed to prepare an expert report, or defendants can file motions contesting the evidence before trial which causes delays since additional hearings may have to be scheduled.
Q. What are the steps in the criminal court system?
Steps to Tracking a Criminal Case
|1. A crime occurs|
2. Police investigate the crime by speaking to witnesses and gathering evidence. The police prepare a report.
3. If there is enough evidence, charges are filed and the defendant is arrested or ordered to appear for court by summons.
4. A preliminary hearing is held before a magisterial district judge. The purpose of this hearing is to determine if there is enough evidence for the case to proceed; it is not a trial, the magisterial district judge cannot find the defendant guilty or sentence the defendant. If there is a plea agreement, the defendant usually waives this hearing. If the hearing is waived or if the judge finds there is enough evidence, the case is transferred to the Court of Common Pleas. Bail is also set where the defendant is required to follow various conditions.
5. The next step is a guilty plea or trial.
6. If the defendant pleads guilty, he or she will then be scheduled for sentencing.
7. If the case goes to trial, a judge or jury decides if the defendant is guilty. If found guilty, the defendant is scheduled for sentencing.
8. A criminal case generally ends after sentencing.
9. However, after sentencing, a defendant may file an appeal to the Superior Court, and subsequently to the Supreme Court, alleging errors in the handling of his or her case.
Q. How many cases does the District Attorney’s office handle in a year?
A. The following numbers are approximate: 400 adult criminal cases, 30-50 juvenile cases, 20-30 summary appeals, 5 domestic support de novo hearings, 10-15 PFA violations, 5-10 PCRA hearings, 5-10 Superior Court appeals.
Q. How many cases are resolved by guilty pleas or ARD?
A. About 85-90%.
Q. What is ARD?
A. ARD is an acronym for Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition. It is a program for first-time offenders, or those with minimal prior records. Defendants are placed on a period of probation and if they comply with the program and its requirements, they can petition the court to dismiss and expunge the charges after they are complete.
Q. Why are there so many guilty pleas?
A. Across the country, the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas or other diversionary programs. Every district attorney strives to appropriately resolve a case through a guilty plea. With high caseloads it is simply impossible to take every case to trial. A guilty plea resolves cases efficiently and cost-effectively by saving time and money, but also secures a conviction. Further, if a defendant is agreeable to a reasonable guilty plea, it makes no sense to expend time, money, and resources to have a trial.
Q. What factors does the District Attorney consider when making a plea offer?
A. The nature of the charges, strength of the evidence, prior record, position of the victim and police officer, whether the defendant was cooperative and/or getting treatment, and how similar cases have been handled previously.
Q. If I am a victim and I want the charges dropped, does the District Attorney have to comply?
A. No. While the District Attorney will consider the position of the victim, he or she is not bound by what the victim wants.
Q. What is the single most common crime in Wyoming County?
Q. Are most crimes drug related?
A. Yes. Most burglary, theft, and other property crimes are drug related.
Q. What is “drug court” or “problem solving courts”?
A. Wyoming and Sullivan Counties have a drug treatment court, also known as a problem solving court. In recent years these courts have become more common across the country. These courts involve a unique approach where the judge, public defender, district attorney, probation, counselor, law enforcement, and a community liaison sit on a team to address the needs of accepted defendants. It is not intended to be an adversarial approach. Only non-violent defendants can be admitted. A defendant still pleads guilty and is sentenced, but the sentence is deferred pending completion of the program. If they complete the program, they do not go to jail. If they do not complete the program, the defendant must serve the original sentence. The goal of these courts is to directly address the problems, such as addiction, that bring a defendant into a court system. By trying to resolve the underlying problem, it is hoped the cycle of incarceration can be stopped. Due to the incredible expense of building jails and keeping inmates, more and more states are setting up drug courts and problem solving courts.
Q. Why are charges withdrawn sometimes?
A. Although relatively rare, there are times when the District Attorney must withdraw charges. The reasons are usually that a victim or important witness does not want to testify, is not cooperative, or cannot be located. Although rare, there have been times when a victim or witness has lied or changed his or her story. It is important to know that the District Attorney bears the burden of proof, he must prove the case and a defendant does not need to prove anything. If the District Attorney feels the case cannot be proven or the crime did not occur, it is his ethical obligation to withdraw the charges.
Q. What are the toughest cases?
A. Child sex cases. Although it is common to hear how people despise child sexual abusers, these cases are very difficult to prove in court. First, the victim, a child, is easily scared and intimidated. There is often no physical evidence since the body heals and a child is too ashamed, scared, or embarrassed to come forward immediately. Often, the abuser is a family member or friend, which makes it even more difficult for the child to report the crime. Since the abusers do not usually aim to injure the child, but instead use the child for his or her own sexual gratification, there are rarely any injuries. Injuries would only lead the discovery of the assault sooner, something the abuser seeks to avoid. These cases often result in the word of a child against the word of an adult, thus placing the child in a very difficult position. It is important for sexual abuse victims to know they should not feel ashamed or embarrassed, there are people who want to help you, and that you should report any crime.
Q. What should I do if I am a victim of a crime?
A. Contact the police immediately, or 911 in an emergency. You should also contact Victim’s Resource Center. If your case involves the theft or damage to property, please document those losses so that a restitution figure can be determined.
Q. What should I do if I am a witness to a crime?
A. Try to remember everything and contact the police immediately, if an emergency, contact 911.
Q. If I am a victim or witness, how many times might I have to testify in court?
A. If the case is resolved by a guilty plea or ARD, you may never have to testify. If the defendant wants to fight the charges and have a trial, you may have to testify two or three times (at the preliminary hearing, possibly at any pre-trial motion hearings, and at trial).
Q. Which police department should I contact?
A. If the crime happened in a township or borough with a local police department, or coverage from another local police department, contact that department. If the local police department is off duty, or if the local municipality where the crime happened does not have its own police department or police coverage, contact the Pennsylvania State Police, Tunkhannock Barracks, at 570-836-2141. A list of local police departments can be found here.