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What can you expect at your preliminary hearing? According to the United States Department of Justice, a preliminary hearing is “a little like a mini-trial.” The prosecutors will present evidence and call witnesses to support the allegations, while the defense attorney will challenge evidence to mitigate the case against their client.
After hearing the evidence from the prosecution, the judge will determine whether probable cause exists to hold you over for trial. Knowing what to expect at your preliminary hearing will reduce your stress and could help you achieve a better outcome in your case. If you have an attorney, they should represent your best interests and walk you through the process.
What Must the District Attorney Prove During a Preliminary Hearing?
The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure require courts in the Commonwealth to schedule a preliminary hearing in the weeks following preliminary arraignment. During an arraignment, you would have heard a quick summary of the allegations against you, had your bail set, and have had a plea of not guilty entered on your behalf.. The preliminary hearing is then held to see if the charges brought match up with the allegations made. A preliminary hearing is a first, but important step in the process.
There are differences between the preliminary hearing and a “mini-trial.”. The primary difference is the burden of proof the prosecutor must meet. In most criminal trials, they must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, at a preliminary hearing, they only need to establish a prima facie case, meaning:
- The alleged crime occurred
- The evidence shows that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime
In some cases, the prosecutor may have the arresting officer or other officers testify without presenting any other evidence. They do not have to prove the trustworthiness or credibility of the witnesses during a preliminary hearing, so they could introduce testimony from a witness you believe is unreliable. In that case, the job of the attorney is to get those lies cemented into the written record so they can use them later to impeach or disprove the claims of the witness.
A good defense attorney will ask questions to expose problems in the prosecution’s case, like illegally seized evidence or holes in the police investigation.
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Possible Outcomes from a Preliminary Hearing
Once evidence is presented, the judge must make one of two determinations.
The Judge Agrees With the Prosecution
If the judge agrees there is sufficient evidence to support holding you over for trial, the charges move forward. Then, the prosecutor and defense attorney will move on to pretrial motions, discovery, and other preparations for a jury trial.
The Judge does Not Believe There Is Enough Evidence
If the judge does not believe that the prosecution established a prima facie case based on the evidence presented, they will dismiss the charges, and you will go free. This disposition effectively ends the case, and you will not face any criminal charges.
A Criminal Defense Lawyer Could Help You Get a Better Outcome
It is often a good idea to have a criminal defense attorney on your side during your preliminary hearing. They will present evidence and cross-examine any witnesses—including the arresting officer if they testify. Their primary objective during this hearing will be to have the charges dismissed, preventing the prosecution from moving forward with the case.
However, even when the case is not dismissed, your attorney could get your charges reduced or your bail lowered. In addition, they will learn crucial information during the preliminary hearing that can help your case later:
- The evidence prosecutors have against you
- Clues about the trustworthiness of the witnesses
- Possible grounds to suppress evidence or witnesses
For example, a witness may change their testimony between the preliminary hearing and the trial. When this occurs, your attorney could question their credibility or reliability on the stand.
What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing?
If the judge determines there is insufficient evidence to go to trial, you’ll go home a free person. However, if they find the prosecutor established their prima facie case, it is time to prepare for trial. There are several steps you can expect during this period.
Getting Your Trial Date
While your trial date will probably be several months away, the court will get it on the docket. Remember that the time between your preliminary hearing and your trial date will likely be busy, and there could be delays.
Discovery and Pretrial Motions
The district attorney and your defense lawyer will need to do additional case-building and file pretrial motions. For example, they might identify and interview witnesses, analyze evidence, and investigate witnesses for the other side.
Each side could also file pretrial motions depending on the facts of the case. For instance, new evidence could lead your attorney to move for dismissal of the charges. They also could discover grounds to suppress evidence that the police obtained illegally or failed to document correctly.
Your attorney might also find it necessary to file a change of venue motion. They most commonly take this step in highly publicized cases when it is challenging to find impartial jurors.
Throughout this time, negotiations will likely continue between your legal team and the prosecution. As a result, you could avoid trial and receive a reduced charge or sentence in your case. Your lawyer can advise you on the progress of these negotiations and whether you should accept a plea offer based on the unique facts of your case.
Your attorney may not negotiate a plea agreement if you have compelling evidence to show your innocence. In addition, a trial may become necessary if they cannot get the case dismissed at the preliminary hearing or a motion to dismiss approved based on new evidence.
Speak With a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Pennsylvania About Your Case
If you or a family member faces charges in Pennsylvania, you will want a criminal defense attorney who can manage your case, represent you in the courtroom, and help you understand what to expect at your preliminary hearing and throughout the process. At the Law Offices of M.J. Snyder, LLC, we offer a free consultation to those facing charges.
Call us now to learn more about how we may be able to help you.