Citizens Police Academy: District Courts

citizens-police-academy-wilmington-delawareSession 3 of the Hatboro and Horsham Citizens Police Academy (CPA) dealt with District Courts, the most local of courts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania judicial system.  The seminar was provided District Justice Paul N. Leo, Magisterial District 38-1-14, located in Hatboro, Pa.

Justice Leo was a police officer in the Upper Moreland Police Department.  He has been elected to his third term (six years each) on the District Court.  In addition to giving his time to the Hatboro and Horsham CPA, he provides instruction at the Montgomery County Community College Municipal Police Academy.  In this capacity, the Honorable Justice teaches police cadets the basic and finer points of criminal law and the legal system.

Frankly, the law – like economic theory – tends to make my eyes water and ears bleed.

(For this reason, I take no responsibility for inaccurate legalese which may – or may not – be found in the following.)

Judge Leo was able to make the legal system – as seen through its basic, most local interaction with the average citizen – both interesting and relatable.

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Click here: Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System for an extremely informative, interactive presentation of the PUJS pyramid style organization.

  • Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System consists of:
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court – Highest State Court
      • Established in 1684 (Oldest appellate court in U.S.)
      • 7 justices request selected appeals from Superior and Commonwealth Courts
    • Superior Court and Commonwealth Courts
      • Superior Court (15 judges)
        • Final Arbiter in most legal matters, primarily criminal and most civil matters
      • Commonwealth Court (9 judges)
        • Established in 1968 and unique to Pennsylvania
        • Primary responsibility is with issues involving State and Local governments and regulatory agencies
      • Superior and Commonwealth Courts hear appeals from Court of Common Pleas
    • Court of Common Pleas (451 judges)
      • 60 Judicial Districts (67 counties in PA, 14 counties combined into 7 districts)
        • General trial courts for both criminal and civil cases
        • Appeals from District Court decisions
    • Minor Courts (526 judges)
      • 526 magisterial districts
        • includes 13 Allegheny County DJs serving Pittsburgh
      • 29 Philadelphia District Courts (27 General, 2 Traffic)
      • Civil trials
      • All minor criminal and some serious criminal trials
        • Decides which criminal cases refer to Court of Common Pleas
      • Preliminary hearings and arraignments
  • Montgomery County Courts consist of 30 District Courts
    • District Justice Paul N. Leo, Judicial District 38-1-14
Paul leo

District Magistrate Paul N. Leo (MD 38-1-14)

In District Court, Judge Leo is responsible for hearing criminal arraignments and deciding – on prima facie grounds – the likelihood that a crime has been committed and whether the alleged perpetrator should be held over for trial or if bail should be set (except for cases involving murder and voluntary manslaughter that automatically go before the Court of Common Pleas). He also decides which criminal cases are sufficiently serious for Court of Common Pleas.

In addition, Judge Leo hears all civil cases in disputed amounts up to $12,000., summary offenses and municipal ordinance violations.

In his presentation to the CPA, Judge Leo also touched on subjects such as:

  • The hierarchy of offenses in the criminal code that range from Summary and Misdemeanor (Classes 1-3) offenses through Felonies (Classes 1-3) and Super Felony charges for drug dealing and abuse of a child.
  • Workings of the bail bond system
  • Domestic abuse and implications of Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders
  • Role of the Prothonotary
  • Search warrants

One of the more interesting topics was a discussion of the “four corner” concept in the presentation of Probable Cause, which is normally the responsibility of an arresting police officer.  The concept requires that all facts and evidence substantiating an arrest and the alleged commission of a crime or violation must be contained within the four corners of any document submitted to The Court, particularly in criminal matters.

The concept places the onus for documenting any violation or crime on the arresting officer.  It requires a meticulous attention to detail and relies on the ability of the officer to properly articulate all important facts and supporting information without providing the Defense an easy out on technicality or substantive error.

As you can imagine, some of the stories related on this issue and others, gleaned from years of experience on the bench were enlightening, troubling, or downright funny.  The impression one gets is that a day on the bench cannot be confused with a day on the beach; but it does have its moments.

02The judge related several issues of frustration.  One was on the parade of repeat offenders or “frequent fliers” whose experience in the legal system rivals that of the judges themselves.  Too often repeat customers of The Court know all too well the gradual escalation of court action and sanctions; and they are able to “game the system” to maintain their freedom right up to the point where serious action and incarceration might occur.

The saddest problem involves the redundant appearance of domestic violence victims, who often refuse to testify against a significant other repeatedly over separate incidences of abuse.  It’s a long-standing and difficult problem with no easy or simple solution.  The worst part is that it can eventually become a matter of life or death.

Other subjects I found interesting:

  • Law degrees are not required to serve as judges in the lowest courts (Magisterial District) or in the highest court (Pennsylvania Supreme Court); but they are required to serve on the mid-level courts (Common Pleas, Commonwealth, and Superior)
  • Conviction rate for jury trials in Montgomery County is 87%.
  • Video arraignment systems now available at incarceration sites and to The Courts is saving much in the way of costs and in freeing police officers and sheriff’s staff for other duties due to the removal of transportation complications.

courtroom-gavelOverall, Judge Leo did an excellent job of explaining – in mostly laymen terms – the conduct, operation, and expectations a participant might have of an interaction with the Minor Courts of Pennsylvania.  It’s difficult to make discussions of law sound very interesting to the man on the street.  Judge Leo made it interesting and well worth the time spent listening.

At some point, I plan to take the good Judge up on his open invitation to observe his court in action.

All courts, including local Magisterial District Courts, are open to the public.  Judge Leo’s court is located just south of “downtown” Hatboro, as part of the Victorian Village complex at 420 S. York Road.  The Judge recommends calling (215-957-5935) for The Court’s schedule before stopping in to observe the local court at work.

The Magisterial District Court for Horsham (38-1-22) is operated under District Justice Harry J. Nesbitt III, and is located at 903 Sheehy Drive, Suite A, Horsham, PA 19044 (215-675-2040).

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