Magisterial District Court 49-3-05 handles thousands of cases each year. Most are traffic and parking citations, and the vast majority of these are handled by a simple guilty plea. The next biggest chunk of my workload is “non-traffic” citations. These are summary criminal charges – things like: underage drinking, public drunkenness, harassment, criminal mischief, and criminal trespass. Also included are ordinance violations, including excessive noise, public urination, littering, and possession of a small amount of marijuana. Although much of Penn State University sits in State College Borough, the University police are not authorized to enforce Borough ordinances, so a person caught on campus with a small amount of marijuana will be charged with a misdemeanor under state law.
If you receive a non-traffic citation, you have ten days to plead guilty or not guilty. If you plead guilty, then you must pay the fine within 30 days. However, if you cannot to pay within 30 days, you can ask to pay in installments over a longer period of time. We don’t send people to jail for their inability to pay their fines. If you don’t respond to your citation within ten days or don’t pay your fines within the allowed time, then I will issue an arrest warrant, which may subject you to arrest and will also add constable fees.
Suppose you choose to plead not guilty. Your case is then scheduled for trial. You can choose to hire an attorney to represent you or you can represent yourself. You cannot ask someone who is not an attorney to represent you. The police will present their evidence and you will have a chance to cross-examine the police witnesses. Then, if you wish, your own witnesses (including yourself) can testify and are subject to cross-examination by the police. After all the testimony is done, each side gets a chance to make a closing argument. In all criminal cases, the burden of proof rests on the police – they must prove that you committed offense beyond a reasonable doubt. If I find you guilty, you may appeal that decision to the Court of Common Pleas in Bellefonte, where you would be granted an entirely new trial.
In our system of justice, the courts are open to the public. Anyone can sit in on a trial in my courtroom. Stop by if you’re curious or want to see how I perform my duties.
When police want to charge someone with a more serious criminal charge, they file a criminal complaint in my court. I review the complaint to make sure it is legally correct and then forward it to the Court of Common Pleas for the preliminary hearing. Magisterial District Judges preside over preliminary hearings at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte. At the preliminary hearing, a case will be held for trial if the Commonwealth provides evidence that all of the elements of the offense occurred and that the defendant was probably the one who committed the crime.
I also handle civil cases where the amount sought is up to $12,000. A typical case might be where a homeowner is seeking money back from a contractor who may not have performed all the work he was supposed to. And, I also handle landlord-tenant complaints. In most of these cases, a landlord is either seeking to evict a tenant or wants unpaid rent.
There are six Magisterial District Judges in Centre County. Each has his or her own district, but for one week out of every six, we are each on call during the weekend and off hours. We have to handle any arraignments, emergency protection from abuse petitions, and search and arrest warrant requests that arise during non-office hours. Most judges will tell you that being on call is the least favorite part of the job because they can be called at any hour of the day or night.
Deciding whether to grant emergency protection from abuse petitions is one of my most difficult but most satisfying tasks. PFA orders provide those who have been threatened with physical harm short-term legal protection until the Court of Common Pleas has an opportunity to rule on whether longer term safeguards are warranted. The people needing this protection tend to be victims of domestic abuse.
One of my favorite responsibilities is performing marriages – everybody (usually) leaves happy. In my first five years in office I officiated about 230 marriages, and I married individuals from 37 different countries.
Here is a map of Magisterial District 49-3-05 (in blue):