Can I really go to jail for 90 days for a summary offense?

Summary offenses under Pennsylvania law include harassment, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and other “citation” offenses. Summary offenses carry a maximum time in jail of 90 days. This often comes as a shock and surprise to those who are charged with these offenses.

Summary offenses are often charged by police officers who hear a dispute between two neighbors or other individuals in a public place and aren’t necessarily even sure who is at fault. Sometimes they charge everyone involved. Sometimes they pick a side and charge the person they think is more at fault with one of these offenses. In googling and trying to learn about this offense, the defendant who feels that they were perhaps wronged by the other person is shocked to learn that they could face jail time on the offense.

So first, for the good news: it is extremely rare for anyone to serve jail time on a summary offense. In most cases, summary offenses result in a fine and nothing more. But now for the bad news: just because it’s rare doesn’t mean that it’s unheard of. Our attorneys are aware of situations where individuals have received jail time and have come to us after the sentence was imposed in an effort to try to get the sentence undone. It is best to defend a case right from the start, rather than trying to fix it after the fact.

Summary offenses are first tried at the Magisterial District Court in front of a judge who is essentially a “Justice of the Peace.” This judge is not necessarily law trained (in other words not necessarily a lawyer), but may be a retired police officer, county official, or some other person whose job it is to keep peace in their township. This trial at the MDC may be very informal and will involve a police officer testifying as to why they issued the charge. Still, you have important procedural rights at these hearings, including all of your constitutional rights and the right to insist on being convicted beyond a reasonable doubt rather than a lower standard.

If you’re convicted at the MDC, you have the opportunity to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. The Court of Common Pleas is a much more serious court and you will appear in front of a judge who tends to deal with more serious cases. This can either work for you or against you in a summary offense.

Having knowledgeable and experienced counsel with you when you are facing a summary offense is important. It is possible to get jail time, even though it is extremely rare. The overwhelming majority of summary offenses end with nothing more than a fine, even when you’re convicted. But vindicating your rights is an important part of our criminal system. If you’ve been charged with a summary offense, contact one of the criminal defense attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to talk about your citation and to understand all of the options you have in facing it.