Understanding Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Courts

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Understanding Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Courts

Pennsylvania has magisterial district courts in all of its counties except Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have their own municipal court. Nevertheless, both function similarly as the other magisterial district courts throughout the state. Also to note, magisterial district court judges are elected officials, and the elected official does not have to be an attorney to be a magisterial district court judge.

Magisterial district courts are referred to as courts of limited jurisdiction as they are limited to certain matters.  Nevertheless, magisterial district courts are involved in both the civil and criminal arena. For criminal matters, a magisterial district court judge handles summary offenses, preliminary hearings, and, in some counties, arraignments. With respect to criminal matters, the magisterial district court judge is bound by Pennsylvania’s Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Focusing on summary offenses, if a defendant receives an unfavorable result, that individual can, within 30 days from the date of the decision, appeal the magisterial district court judge’s decision to the court of common pleas. The court of common pleas is not bound by the magisterial district court’s decision and will review the case de novo (as new).

Regarding preliminary hearings, a criminal defendant has two options when before the magisterial district court judge. The individual can waive the preliminary hearing or have a preliminary hearing conducted. The preliminary hearing is the procedural step in the criminal process where the magisterial district court is determining whether there is enough evidence to bind the case over for a court of common pleas judge. This is also referred to as establishing a prima facie case. By waiving the preliminary hearing, an individual is not pleading guilty; he or she is simply allowing the case to be bound over to the court of common pleas.

Contrary, if an individual chooses to proceed with a preliminary hearing, the magisterial district court judge will hear from witnesses, accept evidence, and determine if there is enough evidence (a prima facie case) to allow the case to proceed to the court of common pleas. The evidentiary standard for a preliminary hearing is significantly lower than what it normally takes to find someone guilty of alleged charges. It must be emphasized that the magisterial district court judge is not determining an individual’s guilt or innocence at this procedural stage. Assuming the defendant loses at the preliminary hearing, or if the preliminary hearing is waived, the magisterial district court judge will set bail for the defendant and the case will be sent to the court of common pleas for further adjudication of  the charges.

Shifting gears, magisterial district courts also hear civil cases. However, being courts of limited jurisdiction, magisterial district courts are considered a small claims court and can only hear cases with an amount in controversy up to $12,000. Anything over $12,000 needs to be filed in the appropriate court of common pleas. Typical cases that come before a magisterial district court are landlord-tenant matters, violation of municipal ordinances, and breaches of contract. Like summary offenses, if an individual is dissatisfied with the results at the magisterial district court, in most instances, that individual, within 30 days from the date of the decision, can appeal the decision to the court of common pleas, which will review the case de novo (as new).

At the magisterial district court many individuals chose to represent themselves. However, it is often worthwhile to consult and/or hire an attorney before proceeding before a magisterial district judge so as to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your case. Buzgon Davis Law Offices is experienced in both civil and criminal matters before magisterial district judges and the procedural stages that follow.

This article was written by Joseph A. Crowe, Associate Attorney of Buzgon Davis Law Offices.

**The information is this blog is for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice and does not create an attorney/client relationship.

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