The Steps of a Criminal Trial in Pennsylvania

The Steps of a Criminal Trial in Pennsylvania

Taking your case to criminal trial in Pennsylvania might be overwhelming for both you and your loved ones. However, understanding the trajectory of criminal proceedings allows you to address this challenge proactively, giving you more of a sense of control and security than if you’re walking into the situation completely uninformed.

If you’re a defendant facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, your case will generally go through the following phases:

Arrest and Criminal Charges

The first step in the criminal trial process is your arrest. This could be immediately after law enforcement observes you engaging in what they believe to be criminal behavior or after an investigation. Regardless of the specifics, an arrest occurs when the police have probable cause to believe that you’ve committed a crime. 

After being detained by law enforcement officers and taken into custody, the district attorney will decide if charges will be brought against you stemming from these suspected illegal activities. 

Preliminary Arraignment and Bail

The next stage is the preliminary arraignment, where you’re formally made aware of the charges facing you in court. Here, a magistrate informs you of your charges, your right to legal representation, and asks if you have any questions.

During this appearance, bail is usually set. Depending on the charges, you could be released ROR (released on your own recognizance), which means you don’t have to pay anything to get out of custody. 

Alternatively, you could have bail set, where you will have to pay a certain amount to be released. In the most severe cases, bail will not be set, and you will be incarcerated while your charges are being resolved.

Preliminary Hearing (in Some Cases)

In some cases, the next step is a preliminary hearing. This is a court hearing where the prosecution is tasked with providing the judge with enough evidence to establish that you likely committed the offense as they’ve charged. 

Your attorney can cross-examine witnesses and challenge evidence at this early stage, and then argue for why the charges should not be held over for court. Criminal defense attorneys often use these hearings to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case.

In Pennsylvania, preliminary hearings are typically only held for felony cases.

Pre-Trial Conferences

Pre-trial conferences are one of the next steps in the criminal trial process. They are formal meetings between your defense attorney and the prosecutor.

The primary purpose of these sessions is to minimize any surprises at trial, discuss potential plea deals, handle legal questions that need addressing before trial, and exchange and review discovery material. 

At this time, many cases end because a negotiated guilty plea occurs, leading to less severe charges and/or penalties. 

Motion Hearings

Next, there may be motion hearings. These proceedings address legal matters that must be decided before the actual trial begins. 

Some examples of motions that could be brought here include a motion to suppress or a motion in limine. The determinations made during this phase set the stage for how your trial will unfold.


Eventually comes the trial, which is a legal proceeding where the prosecution attempts to present evidence of your criminal behavior and meet its burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jury or Bench Trial

At this stage, you’ll have to decide whether to proceed with a jury trial, where the outcome is decided by a jury of your peers, or a bench trial, where the judge decides the outcome of your case. The decision between a bench trial or jury trial is significant and depends largely on the specifics of your case.

In a bench trial, your fate lies in the hands of one person – the judge. Judges are legal experts who won’t often get swayed by emotions or sympathies, which can be advantageous if you’re dealing with complex legal issues that could potentially confuse laypersons.

Both types of trials consist of similar phases: opening and closing statements, presenting evidence, examining and cross-examining witnesses, and arguing each respective position.

Schedule a Free Case Review With a Criminal Defense Attorney

Understanding the steps of a criminal trial in Pennsylvania is important so you are able to participate fully in your own defense. However, this knowledge doesn’t make up for professional legal guidance. If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact us today to schedule a free consultation

Contact Our Criminal Defense Law Firm in West Chester, PA

If you are facing criminal charges and need legal help, contact the West Chester, PA criminal defense lawyers at DiCindio Law, LLC to schedule a free initial consultation.

DiCindio Law, LLC
29 S Walnut St
West Chester, PA 19382
(610) 430-3535

***This blog article is made available by the law firm publisher for educational purposes and to provide general information, not to provide specific legal advice. By reading, you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The above listed information does not include the entire crimes code, annotations, amendments or any recent changes that may be relevant. The information provided is for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. Please contact DiCindio Law, LLC for a consultation and to discuss what law is relevant to your case. ***