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Common Legal Questions

Common Legal Questions for Survivors of Sexual Assault

No, sexual assault is a crime against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the victim/survivor is the person who makes the complaint. This means that the survivor is the main witness for the state, which provides a lawyer, called an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) You will probably receive a written notice (a subpoena) in the mail telling you the date and time you are expected to come to court. The subpoena is a legal order; DO NOT ignore it. Sometimes, if a case is scheduled quickly after an arrest, the ADA or a victim-witness coordinator from the DA’s office may call to schedule a court date as well. Treat phone calls from the DA’s office as if they are subpoenas. There are two locations where sexual assault and abuse cases are heard: Family/Juvenile Court at 1501 Arch St. and the Criminal Justice Center at 13th and Filbert St. Your subpoena and/or your ADA will tell you where to go and which courtroom to report to. A preliminary hearing is usually held shortly after the arrest (a week to 10 days). It is generally a simple and brief procedure which takes place only in cases where there are felony charges. The victim/witness testifies to the basic facts of his/her assault. Then the judge decides whether there is enough evidence to move the case to trial. At the preliminary hearing charges may be added or dropped depending on the attorney. Bail may be raised, lowered or remain the same. If the case is “held for court,” the trial is scheduled within 3 to 6 months of the preliminary hearing. All trials involving felony charges are held at the Criminal Justice Center. The purpose of the trial is to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crimes s/he was arrested for. Either a jury and judge or a judge alone may hear the trial evidence. When a person commits a misdemeanor crime against a child, a Municipal Court Trial is held at Family Court. A jury is never present for a Municipal Court Trial. The judge alone decides whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. When a juvenile commits a sexual assault, an adjudicator hearing (no-jury trial) is held before a judge at Family Court. Witnesses may be any age but defendants are all under the age of 18. In order for a child to be a witness in a criminal proceeding, the child must prove to the court that he/she knows the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. Both the ADA and defense attorney will question a child in front of a judge to test the child’s memory of past events and understanding of the truth and lies. Sometimes this is difficult and the child cannot be used as a witness. Most of the time child witnesses do “qualify” and, therefore, can be questioned about what happened and who did it. It is important to remember that even if the child is not “qualified” by the court, this does not mean the child is making up a story of abuse. WOAR has no authority to either cause an offender to be prosecuted or to cause a case to be withdrawn or discharged. Our court advocates are not lawyers – we are here to provide support and information for survivors of sexual assault in the criminal justice system. Our advocates can assist survivors who choose to report sexual assaults by helping them to contact the appropriate authorities, by facilitating contact between survivors and the criminal justice system, and by accompanying them throughout the court process. However, it is up to the police to arrest perpetrators and the District Attorney’s office to prosecute them, and WOAR has no control over whether or not a case goes forward or the outcome of that case.

If you have incurred expenses as a result of a crime, you may be eligible for a reimbursement from the PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program.

For more information, visit:
Or call: (800) 233-2339 or (717) 783-5153

If you would like help filling out a claim form, you can contact one of WOAR’s Court Advocates for assistance.

Criminal Justice flow chartThis chart is provided to help you gain understanding of the criminal justice process. If you have questions specific to your case, please contact the ADA assigned to your case. Please click the chart to open larger image.