When the police charge you with a crime, the courts follow a process when deciding to pursue criminal charges against you.

In Pennsylvania, the process is the same no matter what criminal charges you face.


One of the first steps is your arraignment. This is also sometimes your first appearance in court. The judge states the formal charges and asks if you want to obtain legal representation and how you plead. The plea is your response to the charges. You can enter a plea of:

  • Guilty
  • Not guilty
  • No contest

Sometimes, depending on how serious your crime is, the court sets bail at this hearing.

Preliminary hearing

Sometimes called a pre-trial hearing, the preliminary hearing is where the court decides if a trial is necessary. A judge reads the preliminary evidence and uses the “probable cause” standards to decide if there is enough evidence to convince a jury that you committed the crime in question.

Your attorney and the state will present evidence then the judge will make his or her ruling. If there is enough evidence, your case will go to trial, but if there is not, you will receive a dismissal of the charges.

Criminal trial

Jury selection occurs during the criminal trial phase. The prosecution presents arguments and your defense team presents your side of the situation. Then, you receive a verdict. After the trial, the judge will dismiss the case or sentence you.

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 2% of federal criminal cases go to trial. The strength of your defense may affect whether options such as plea deals or diversion programs are better than going to court.