How the PCRA Process Works in PA

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From the beginning of the process, there’s obviously a consultation with your lawyer. What your lawyer does is listens to what you have to say and considers things that could be brought in a PCRA petition. The next thing, and the most important thing to happen, is your lawyer needs to get the case file from your prior lawyer, and perhaps the most important piece of that case file are the trial transcripts, or if there’s a guilty plea, the guilty plea transcripts, and that allows the lawyer to do an investigation of the case. Client contact is also something that’s extremely important. My practice is to set up conference calls with the client or to have an email exchange over the prisoner’s email system to get a sense of what the client thinks about what went wrong with the trial.

Once that investigative process is done, and the issues have been identified, the first thing that happens in court is you file a Post-Conviction Relief Act petition. The petition is a pleading. What it is, is it’s a paragraph by paragraph document that talks about the history of the case, recites the facts in as persuasive a manner as possible to show innocence and then lays out the legal claims. Once that petition is filed, the Commonwealth generally gets 30 days to respond to that petition. More often than not the Commonwealth files what’s called a motion to dismiss and that’s a document that says the petition should be dismissed on legal grounds. When that document’s filed it falls on us to file a brief in response, and the brief in response is a legal document that puts forth legal arguments citing case law explaining why the petition is properly filed and why you’re entitled to relief.

Once all those paper pleadings are entered in the record, the judge either decides the case on the pleadings or decides to have a hearing. If the case is decided against you on the pleadings, the judge will do what’s called issuing a 907 notice, and what that is it’s a notice that the court intends to dismiss the petition. That gives you another 20 days to tell the judge why you’re right and why the petition shouldn’t be dismissed. Assuming the petition’s dismissed then you’d have 30 days to file an appeal. On the other hand, if a hearing is granted the hearing will be scheduled, and you get your witnesses together, and you assemble your evidence, and you go to a hearing. A PCRA hearing is basically a mini-trial where your goal is to get a new trial, and after that hearing, the judge will decide the case. If it’s decided in your favor the most common relief is you get a new trial. If it’s decided against you, then you start an appeals process with the appellate courts.

How Long Do You Have to File a PCRA Petition?

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So, for PCRA petitions, the process is, normally there is an irregular appeal first. You have a year from when your judgment of sentence becomes final. What that means is, is if you appeal, when your appeal is over, either after the superior court decides the case or after the Supreme Court denies taking the case, you’ll have a year from that date to file your PCRA petition. That’s the general rule. However, if you don’t take an appeal, then you have a year from the day you’re sentenced to file a PCRA petition.

How Long Does a PCRA Petition Take

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It depends on what Pennsylvania county you’re in. In Philadelphia, the general rule of thumb is it takes about a year. In other counties, I’ve seen petitions filed and decided within five months. So it really depends on what county you’re in and how congested the docket is of the judge that you’re dealing with is.

How Much Does it Cost to File a PCRA Petition?

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So, in determining what the cost would be for a PCRA petition, there are a couple of things that come into play. The first thing is how long was your trial? Was it a guilty plea, was it a one day trial, was it a two-week trial? How serious are the charges? Is it a simple drug case, or it is a first-degree murder case?
The bigger and more complicated the case, the more expensive the price is going to be. Other things to consider with PCRA petitions are am I going to have to hire an investigator? Do I need to go and find witnesses? Will I need to spend time investigating the case to look for new evidence? Those are things that could drive the costs a little higher.
Another consideration for the cost of PCRAs is how complicated are the issues? Are the issues straightforward, or are they going to require a lot of creative research and writing? That’s another thing that could drive the cost of PCRA petitions. So, when you ask how much does it cost, my answer is going to be to ask you a lot of questions about what’s involved in the case.