Criminal Case Process

Nearly all adult criminal cases in Montgomery County follow the same sequence of events:

Flow of a Criminal Case

Arrest or Summons - Starting a Criminal Case

In Montgomery County criminal cases are started either by arrest or by summons. An arrest case means the police take someone into custody, even temporarily, and charge them with a crime that way.

A summons is when law enforcement file criminal charges and a criminal complaint is mailed to the defendant, along with an order to appear for a preliminary arraignment or preliminary hearing.

Preliminary Arraignment

Anyone arrested in Montgomery County will go before a Magisterial District Judge within twenty-four hours. The Magisterial District Judge will set bail in the case. If the person is not released, the case will be reviewed by a Common Pleas judge the next business day.

Anyone charged via summons will have the preliminary arraignment in person, usually the same day as the preliminary hearing. The preliminary arraignment is where the Magisterial District Judge will set a bail.

Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing is the first substantive step in the criminal process. This is the first opportunity to preview the government's evidence, challenge that evidence, and question potential witnesses. The Commonwealth, either through the District Attorney or the arresting officer, has the burden of producing enough evidence at this hearing to have the case held for court.

This hearing takes place in front of a Magisterial District Judge. It is not about determining guilt or innocence, and the Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) will not make a determination of guilt. Instead, the MDJ will decide if there is a little bit of evidence that a crime was committed, and a little bit of evidence that the defendant committed the crimes charged. This is called presenting a prima facie case.

If someone is represented by the Montgomery County Public Defender's Office, they will speak to the attorney assigned to their case that day. There will be plenty of time before the hearing to talk with the assigned attorney that day. The attorney that represents a client at the preliminary hearing is that person's Public Defender for the preliminary hearing only. With some rare exceptions for very serious cases (homicide, rape, etc.), the attorney who handles a preliminary hearing will not have the case through trial.