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.
Once upon a time, if you committed a crime in Philadelphia, you could just move to Pittsburgh, and no one would know about your criminal past. There was no electricity, let alone a computer data base. There was really no way for one county to communicate with another county about a suspect's prior record, and even if there were an efficient means of communication, how could the authorities in the arresting county enquire about a criminal record in every other county in the United States?
A Civil War re-enactor from Georgia recently did his part to accurately portray a drunken, marauding Confederate soldier during the Gettysburg Campaign. Justin Colbert was arrested on June 28, 2013, at an encampment of re-enactors, set to participate in festivities surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, after the drunken "Butternut" repeatedly entered other soldiers' tents, trying to start fights. It took seven other re-enactors to hold him down before police could arrive to administer a dose of Yankee justice. Colbert was charged with the summary offenses of disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.