By District Attorney Ryan Sayers
2023 Vol. 51
In this, the penultimate, Q&A with the DA, I want to recap how a case moves through the criminal justice system and some of the nuances during the process. Once a crime occurs or is reports, then the police will become involved and start their investigation.
Investigations can be as quick and relatively simple as getting a statement from an eyewitness/victim and video from surveillance cameras showing the defendant stealing something or it can take months or a year of interviews, search warrants and scientific analysis before charges get filed.
During these longer investigations the District Attorney’s Office is usually working with the officer because search warrants need approved by an attorney before going to the magistrate or common pleas judge.
Also, the officer investigating is usually consulting with an attorney and the county detective to make sure the case is as strong as possible before filing charges. With that said, there is no requirement in Clearfield County that officers get approval from an attorney before filing charges.
After the charges are filed, the criminal matter is scheduled for a preliminary hearing. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to make sure that the Commonwealth has a prima facie case against the defendant.
In other words, that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is more likely than not the person that committed the crime.
At this stage, the attorneys in the District Attorney’s Office are involved and have reviewed the complaint, spoken with the officer and discussed the matter with any victims/witnesses that are present.
As are result of these discussions and the legal analysis by myself or an assistant district attorney, you will sometimes see in the news that charges were amended, dismissed or withdraw at the preliminary hearing.
(As an aside, the legal and ethical duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not convictions. Thus, if we do not believe the facts and circumstances support the charges filed, then we are ethically obligated act accordingly.)
The next phase of the process is for discovery and motions. After the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth receives any discovery that the officer has in his/her possession that will or could be used at a trial.
Once that discovery is received, then the defense has the ability to test the sufficiency of that evidence, as a matter of law, through motions to suppress and other motions to exclude parts of the Commonwealth’s case.
After that the case can take one of two paths. First, a defendant can plead guilty to some or all of the charges.
The plea offer and negotiations are based on the strength of the evidence and based on the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. The second option is for the defendant to take the case to trial.
Once a defendant enters a guilty plea or is found guilty by a jury, then the matter is scheduled for sentencing. Once again the sentence fashioned by the court is based on the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines (the defendant’s prior record score and the offense gravity score).
This is where most cases conclude in the criminal justice system because the defendant serves out his or her prison sentence and then is on probation/parole.
However, in some cases, an appeal is taken to the Pennsylvania Superior Court to make a ruling on legal issues that might have arisen during the course of a trial or at time of sentencing.
All of these steps were covered in more detail throughout the year, but as you can see the criminal justice system is a complex process with many moving parts.
Next week, I will close out the year with some reflective thoughts in my final Q&A with the DA.
Ryan Sayers is the elected District Attorney of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. The information contained in this article is provided for informational and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter.
You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included in this article without seeking legal or other professional advice.
The contents of these articles contain general information and may not reflect current legal developments or address your situation.