What’s the worst that can happen?

Each summer seems to see an increase in crime. This could be attributed to the heat: a Harvard study suggests that extreme heat is linked to reduced cognitive performance. Perhaps summer vacations affording idle hands more of a “devil’s playground,” are the source. Maybe it’s simply that people are more publicly active during the summer, and more crimes are reported due to their visibility, as an older but interesting report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) suggests. Regardless of the cause, we are likely to see a rise in arrest and citations for the next 3 months. As the school year is wrapping up and pandemic life eases off, the start of summer is the perfect time to talk about criminal law in Pennsylvania.

When clients have visited me after being handed a Summary Citation, mailed a Criminal Court Summons, or arrested and perhaps processed through a Preliminary Arraignment at the Allegheny County Jail, they always ask what could be the worst possible outcome. To best understand what the Commonwealth/prosecution/District Attorney/government has to prove to win a conviction and request any possible sentence, let alone the most severe punishment, one must first determine the “Grading” of the crime with which one is charged.

When researching possible penalties for crimes, one must appreciate that the Courts have multiple bases for meting out a sentence. A Judge may focus on Restitution, Deterrence, Individual Punishment, Societal Retribution, or even a goal like Rehabilitation. There can be a potential jail term and fine that depend upon the grading and degree of the offense as a summary, misdemeanor, or felony — as well as court costs and a payment of restitution to a victim as dictated by the specific facts and circumstances of one’s case. The breakdown from least to most serious crimes is as follows:

  • Most Summary Traffic offenses implicate a potential fine of $35 and no jail;
  • Summary Non-Traffic charges usually carry a potential fine of up to $300 and a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail;
  • Misdemeanors of the 3rd degree carry a potential fine of $2,500 and  maximum sentence of 1 year in jail;
  • Misdemeanors of the 2nd degree carry a potential fine of up to $5,000 and maximum sentence of 2 years in jail;
  • Misdemeanors of the 1st degree carry a potential fine of up to $10,000 and maximum sentence of 5 years incarceration;
  • Felonies of the 3rd degree carry a potential fine of up to $15,000 and maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment;
  • Felonies of the 2nd degree carry a potential fine of up to $25,000 and  maximum of 10 years in prison; and
  • Felonies of the 1st degree also carry a potential fine of up to $25,000 but a maximum of 20 years.

As a practical matter, courts rarely impose fines unless it required to do so by law, such as in the case of mandatory minimum fines for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions. Keep in mind that one’s sentence should be uniquely tailored to pertain to the gravity of the crime (a/k/a Offense Gravity Score), the Defendant’s criminal history (a/k/a Prior Record Score), one’s acceptance of responsibility and expression of remorse, a victim’s impact statement, etc.

These are only general guidelines, and there are many exceptions, e.g., 1st or 2nd Degree Murder are both felonies of the 1st degree that carry a potential $25,000 fine, but a conviction would mandate a sentence of life in prison. Suffice it to say that, rarely does anything good ever happen after midnight or while someone is intoxicated or high … so this summer, please think twice before taking part in any “hijinks.”

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