In Pennsylvania, a jury in a criminal trial consists of 12 citizens drawn from the county where the charges are filed, unless it is a high profile case, in which case the jurors may be brought in from another county. These 12 jurors must reach a unanimous decision when deciding whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty of a particular offense. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, and is "hopelessly deadlocked," then the jury is said to be "hung." At that point, the Court of Common Pleas judge declares a mistrial.
If a defendant, opts not to go to trial, he can either plead guilty or nolo contendre. A nolo contendre plea is also called a plea of "no contest." With a guilty plea, a defendant admits that he committed the offenses to which he is pleading guilty. With a nolo contendre plea, the defendant does not admit to the conduct forming the basis of the offenses to which he is pleading no contest. Rather, he acknowledges that if he went to trial, the Commonwealth would have sufficient evidence to prove that he committed the offenses, assuming that the finder of fact (a judge or jury) believed this evidence. When it comes to sentencing and post-sentencing rights, pleas of guilty and nolo contendre have the exact same effect.
Perhaps the most misused term in the world of criminal law is "narcotics." Many people who should know better, such as police officers, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and crime beat reporters, use the term "narcotic" as a synonym for any illegal drug. Thus, in their use of English, marijuana and cocaine a narcotics, while Oxycodone is a "prescription drug." When I hear such misuse of the term "narcotic" I want to pull out my hair and scream. As a criminal defense attorney interested in linguistics, it is one of my major pet peeves.
I usually appear before the three magisterial district judges here in State College, Pennsylvania several times a week, so I often see summary offense trials while waiting for my own clients' cases to be called. One of the most painful things for me to watch is a pro se defendant in a summary trial. It is like being a life guard trapped behind a glass screen, while watching a person who can't swim drown before my eyes. In case you are unfamiliar with the term "pro se," it means a defendant representing himself. A recent pro se defendant I saw before Judge Carmine Prestia provided a text book case of what can go wrong when a person is foolish enough to try to represent himself. The defendant was charged with retail theft at McLanahan's on College Avenue. His defense was not that he did not commit the retail theft, but rather that it was unfair that he had been charged. Yes, you read that right. In an animated tone, he expressed the inherit unfairness of being handcuffed in the middle of a busy day in front of hundreds of fellow Penn State students and driven to the Centre County Correctional Facility for fingerprinting. He asserted that his treatment was unfair, because he had heard of other people caught shoplifting being able to pay for the merchandise, and being released without the police being called. To bolster this argument he tried to testify that he heard of another student who was caught stealing at the Allen Street McLanahan's that same day, but was not charged. Judge Prestia correctly noted that this was both triple hearsay and not relevant to the case before him.
Summary offenses are the least serious criminal offenses under Pennsylvania law. Common summary offenses include underage drinking, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and a first offense retail theft. Although these offenses are not nearly as serious as misdemeanors or felonies, they are criminal offenses nonetheless, and accordingly, they carry the possibility of jail time, in addition to fines and court costs. The maximum penalty for a summary offense under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code is 90 days in county jail.
It was not long into my career as a criminal defense attorney when I realized that the majority of crimes are either rooted in the pursuit of or effects of drugs and alcohol, or in mental illness, or a combination of the two. My educated guess is that the 38 year old woman who accused workers at a South Central Pennsylvania SPCA animal shelter of "kidnapping her niece," was likely suffering from some DSM-V mental health diagnosis, in light of the fact that her "niece," Molly, is actually a dog. The bizarre delusion led to a rather unusual, alleged burglary over last weekend.
It turns out that you really can get anything money can buy at Wal-Mart, even a male prostitute. In a recent blog post, I explained that America's Wal-Marts have a higher crime rate per square yard than even places like Allison Hill, North Philly or Camden. This is because Wal-Mart sees so many retail thefts, bad checks, ftheft by deception, fraudulent credit card transactions and the like. Yet, I have to admit, even I, as a jaded veteran of the criminal justice system, was a bit surprised to learn that male prostitute was operating out of the Wal-Mart in Queensbury, New York.
As a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, where marijuana use is ubiquitous among Penn State students, I am frequently asked whether people actually get jail time for merely possessing marijuana for personal use. The simple answer is yes, it happens all the time throughout Pennsylvania, but not nearly as much as did in less enlightened times. That being said, this question requires a more thorough explanation.
There have been no shortage of utterly absurd laws in the United States criminalizing sexual activity between consenting adults, and Pennsylvania is no exception. Pennsylvania once had an offense known as "voluntary deviate sexual intercourse," with "deviate sexual intercourse" being defined as oral or anal sex. This was distinguished from "involuntary deviate sexual intercourse," which entails oral or anal sex without a victim's consent, or in situations where a person under age 16 factually consents, but is too young to legally consent to any form of sex with someone more than four years older.
In August 2011, Pennsylvania amended the "Use of Force in Self Protection" statute located at section 505 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code to include a watered down version of the "stand your ground" law. The major difference between the new stand-your-ground provisions and the old self-defense law centers around the duty to retreat before employing deadly force, when an actor is outside of his home or place of employment. The stand-your-ground law eliminates the duty to retreat, but only under limited circumstances.