Law and the Courts

What is the role of a witness in court?

A witness plays an important role in a court proceeding, providing valuable information about the matters under consideration. If you are subpoenaed as a witness in a trial, it is your duty to appear and testify. The lawyer who asks you to come to court can provide you with more specific information about your court appearance.

What if I do not know a lawyer?

Your right to legal counsel if you are arrested is a fundamental one in our country. You may retain a private attorney, or, if you cannot afford to do so, you should immediately contact the public defender's office to represent you.

Should I have a lawyer with me?

It is advisable to speak with a lawyer and have him/her with you when you appear in court. The judge must inform you of the charge against you and of your right to have a lawyer, if you do not have one. The judge must allow you a reasonable time to obtain a lawyer, even to the point of postponing the hearing.

When do I go before the court?

After arrest and booking, you must be taken before the proper court as soon as practicable, usually within six hours. 

Can I be released on bail?

Bail is the posting of security to ensure your appearance in court. The amount of bail is determined by the court but in most cases, you may be released without bail on your own signed promise to appear in court. If you are charged with a crime in Pennsylvania, you usually may be released on bail by depositing with the clerk of court 10 percent of the total amount of bail set by the court. When the case is concluded, 90 percent of the deposit will be returned to you if you make all court appearances. In some situations the court may require a security bond which requires the hiring of a private bondsman.

Do I have to answer any questions?

It is your right under the Constitution of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to refuse to answer any questions, sign any statements, or take any tests concerning the crime. You are entitled to refuse to take the field sobriety tests related to driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. You are entitled to the aid and advice of a lawyer at all times, which includes the public defender if you cannot afford a private attorney. If you make any statements to the police, you give up those valuable constitutional rights and any information which you provide to the police, either oral or written, will be used against you in a court of law.

An admission of guilt is a confession, and will be admissible as evidence in a trial and may produce a conviction the same as if it were written and signed.

A police officer or prosecuting official has no legal authority to induce you to make a confession or admission of guilt either by force or threats, or by promises of leniency, or that no prosecution will take place. Such promises are not binding on the court and may be used only to induce a statement.

What happens after I am arrested?

After the arrest is made, you should be taken to the police station for identification, photographs, and fingerprints. A magistrate then will advise you of the charges for which you have been arrested (arraignment) and set bail. You have the right to talk with a lawyer and to place the appropriate bond in order to be released.

Do I have to submit to a chemical test?

Under Pennsylvania Law, if an officer has reasonable cause to believe you are driving while intoxicated, he/she may arrest you and require that you take a breath test, or, if you are injured, either a blood or urine test. If you refuse, your driver's license will be suspended. If you submit to the test, the result will be used as evidence against you for that particular criminal charge. Refusal to take a blood or urine test may be used in evidence against you as well.

Do I have to submit to a search?

A police officer, following a lawful arrest, has a right to search a person, including your automobile if you are arrested in it. You may not resist the search. However, you are not required to consent to any search, and if you do consent to the search, you may be waiving valuable constitutional rights.

What if I am innocent?

All arrested persons are presumed innocent, however, it is a crime to resist an officer who lawfully arrests you. Do not talk back or be disorderly, because it most likely will result in additional charges being filed, and possibly use of excessive force by the arresting officer. If it turns out that you have been arrested illegally, the law does provide legal remedies.

Can the police use force to arrest me?

If you resist lawful arrest, the police can use all reasonable force to arrest you. However, after you have been restrained they cannot continue to use force.

When can I be arrested?

A police officer may arrest you if he/she has a warrant for your arrest, or does not have a warrant but sees you violate or attempt to violate the law. An officer also may arrest you if someone has committed a crime and the police have probable cause to believe that you are that person, even if the officer was not present when the crime was committed. Police also may arrest you for minor offenses such as public drunkenness if they believe your behavior is a danger to yourself or others.