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City of Philadelphia

Preparing for and Going To Court

Preparing for and going to Court

What is a subpoena?

If you are a victim of or a witness to a crime you will receive a subpoena to appear in a Philadelphia courtroom. A subpoena is a court order that directs you to appear in court as a witness. You may not ignore any court order, including a subpoena. You must appear at the time and place stated on the subpoena. You may receive your subpoena by mail or in person, and the subpoena may be updated by telephone. Please save your subpoena and bring it to court with you because it contains important information about your case.
Appearing in court may be difficult for some people, especially during times of stress. The victim/witness coordinators will assist you and help you understand what to expect when you go to court so that you are prepared.

Do I need an attorney?

It is not necessary for you to have an attorney. The Assistant District Attorney for the Commonwealth represents your interests.

How do I get a victim/witness coordinator to assist me?

For most types of crimes, a victim/witness coordinator will contact you by telephone before any court hearing takes place. To contact us please look at the back of your subpoena, which will provide you with contact information for a coordinator who will be able to assist you. You may also call the Victim/Witness Services Unit main phone number at 215-686-8027 or e-mail DA.Victimservices@phila.gov to be directed to the appropriate coordinator.

What should I do to prepare for court?

• If you need assistance with transportation or language interpretation, please notify the Victim/Witness Services Unit at least two business days before your scheduled court appearance.
• You may bring someone to court with you for support.
• Dress appropriately. Court is a serious occasion, and dress should reflect that. Wearing hats or even chewing gum is generally not acceptable in court. You may also want to bring a sweater or dress warmly as the temperature in many courtrooms is on the cool side.
• Make sure that you eat something before appearing in court, as you may need to spend several hours in the courtroom or waiting room.
• Bring your subpoena with you to court.
• Bring any photographs or documents that you think may be helpful in your case, including receipts for stolen or damaged property and estimates or bills for repaired property.

What can I expect in the courtroom?

The judge, defendant(s), the defendant’s attorney(s), all victims and witnesses, the ADA, a victim advocate, police officers, sheriffs, and other court staff involved in the case may be present in the courtroom. When you are called to testify (tell the court what happened during the crime) you will have to swear (or “affirm”) that you will tell the truth. The ADA will ask you what you know about the case. When the ADA has finished asking you questions, the defendant’s attorney will ask you questions. The judge will only want to hear the facts that relate to this particular case. Witnesses testify one at a time and may be asked to wait outside the courtroom while any other witnesses testify. This can be very frustrating for victims/survivors and witnesses, but it is a common practice and done to ensure that the witnesses’ testimonies do not influence each other. Once everyone testifies, all witnesses may re-enter the courtroom.

How many times will I need to go to court?

As a victim or witness in a crime, your statement about what happened during the crime is very important to make sure the correct offender is caught and given a punishment that fits his/her crime. The number of times you go to court depends on a lot of things, including the type of crime that was committed and whether or not everyone who is supposed to appear in court does so. Please remember that you must appear in court every time you are asked to do so.

How long will I need to be in court?

Victims and witnesses are often in court for several hours at a time. How long you need to spend in court depends on a lot of things. The ADA working on your case and the victim/witness coordinator working with you will do everything they can to explain what is happening with your case, what you need to do, and when you may leave. The court process can be very long. Even if you were asked to arrive to court first thing in the morning, it is possible that you will need to wait for a large part of the day for your turn to be called to testify. Bring any medicines you will need through the course of the day, and provide for appropriate child care.

Will I be allowed to wait inside the courtroom?

Criminal courtrooms are open to the public. However, if more than one victim or witness is required to testify in your case, each may be asked to leave the courtroom while the others testify.

Is there a victim/witness waiting room?

The Office of the District Attorney operates waiting rooms for victims and witnesses, their families, and other support people. There are waiting rooms in both the Criminal Justice Center (1301 Filbert Street, Lobby Level) and Family Court (1501 Arch Street, 9th Floor). Before going to a Victim/Witness Waiting Room, please speak with the ADA assigned to your case or contact the Victim/Witness Services Unit.

I need help getting to and from court. Is transportation assistance available?

Yes, unfortunately only in limited cases. The Office of the District Attorney can only coordinate a ride for you if you are elderly, disabled, or traveling from out of state. If you require further assistance, please speak to the ADA working on your case or contact the Victim/Witness Services Unit for more information.

I need directions to the courthouse.

Printable directions and parking information are available here.

What if I do not speak English?

If you do not speak English, please tell the 911 operators, police, and victim/witness coordinator or ADA what language you speak. They will find interpreters to assist you.

Si usted no habla inglés, dígaselo a la operadora del 911, a la policía, al coordinador de victimas/testigos o al asistente del fiscal e indíquele qué lenguaje necesita. Ellos le buscarán un intérprete para que le asista.

Nếu các bạn không nói được tiếng Mỹ, khi gọi số 911 hãy nói với tổng đài, Cảnh Sát, nhân viên giúp đỡ nạn nhân/nhân chứng hoặc công tố viên "Vietnamese, Vietnamese, Vietnamese..." Họ sẽ tìm nguời thông dịch tiếng Việt cho bạn.

Understanding the language used in Court

What is a preliminary hearing?

A preliminary hearing is scheduled in a felony case within 14 to 21 days after the defendant's arrest. At this hearing, the ADA must show that there is enough evidence to move forward with prosecuting the defendant. If the case is "held for court," it will be scheduled for trial.

What is a trial?

At the trial, the ADA presents all the facts of the case to the judge and possibly a jury. This will include testimony (statements under oath about what happened) from the victim, witnesses, and the police officers involved in the case. At this time, the judge or jury will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime based on the testimony heard at the trial.

If the crime involved is a misdemeanor, the trial takes place in Municipal Court before a judge sitting without a jury. No preliminary hearing takes place.

What is a plea?

A plea is the defendant’s statement about whether or not he/she admits to committing the crime that he/she is being accused of committing. The plea is usually “guilty” (the defendant admits to committing the crime) or “not guilty” (the defendant does not admit to committing the crime). It is possible that a defendant in a case will change his/her plea as the case moves forward. You will be notified if this happens.

Why did the ADA talk about “making an offer” or “negotiating a plea” with the defendant’s attorney?

In cases that are “held for court” (scheduled to go to trial), it is likely that the ADA assigned to the case will try to “negotiate a plea.” This means that if the defendant admits that he/she committed the crime before the trial happens, a punishment will be decided without the need to go to trial. You will have the chance to tell the ADA or victim/witness coordinator what you would like to see happen. The ADA in your case will consider the facts of the case, the defendant’s criminal history, and your input when deciding what offer to make.

If the attorneys and defendant agree to a plea, the defendant is guaranteed to receive a conviction and a sentence. If a case goes to trial and a plea is not negotiated, it is possible that no conviction or sentence will be given to the defendant – what happens will depend on the decision of the judge or jury. Negotiated pleas can help a case end faster because no trial will be needed. As a victim, you no longer need to appear in court for a particular case once the defendant pleads guilty and is sentenced.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

What are my responsibilities as a victim or witness?

As a victim or witness in a case, you are responsible for making sure that the Office of the District Attorney has up-to-date contact information for you. You are also responsible for going to court every time you are subpoenaed to do so and answering truthfully any questions that you are asked.

What if the defendant’s attorney contacts me?

Before your appearance in court, you may be contacted by the defendant’s attorney or an investigator working for the defendant. These people represent the defendant, not you. You can choose not to speak to this person – it is your decision. We suggest that you always know the identity of the person to whom you are speaking; ask for their name and phone number.

What if the defendant or his/her family contacts me?

It is a crime to harass, threaten, or intimidate a victim or witness in a case. It is also a crime for the defendant or anyone acting for the defendant to offer you money or any other benefit to change the statement you make in court or to “drop charges.” If any of these things occur, additional charges may be brought against the defendant.

If the defendant, his/her family or friends, or anyone else contacts, harasses, threatens, or intimidates you, call the District Attorney’s Victim/Witness Services Unit at 215-686-8027 for assistance. In an emergency, call 911.

Is information about my case confidential?

It is the policy of the Office of the District Attorney to maintain your privacy within certain limits. However, it is necessary to share information with District Attorney staff and other law enforcement and criminal justice agencies in order to move your case forward. Your phone number, e-mail address, and other personal information will not be provided to the defendant or his/her attorney. For further information contact the Victim/Witness Services Unit.

What if I move or change my phone number?

If you move or change your phone number, you should tell the District Attorney’s Victim/Witness Services Unit by telephone (215-686-8027), email (DA.Victimservices@phila.gov), or U.S. mail (Three South Penn Square, Philadelphia, PA 19107).

What is restitution?

Restitution is an order by the court for a defendant in a case to reimburse the victim for out-of-pocket expenses that result from the crime. Restitution is ordered as part of the defendant’s sentence. Please see page 11 for more information about restitution.

How can I find out if the offender in my case has been released from prison?

If you are a crime victim who would like to be contacted if the offender in your case has been released from prison, has escaped, or has been moved, you may register for offender release notification services. Please see page 12 for more information.

Will I be paid for my time as a witness?

You are entitled to a small fee for each time you have appeared in court. These fees cannot be paid until the case is finished. Ask the ADA about your fees on the last day of trial.