A preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania typically occurs two weeks after a defendant in a criminal case goes through preliminary arraignment. During the preliminary hearing, the prosecuting attorney presents evidence showing that a crime was committed and the defendant is the likely person who committed the crime. The defense attorney can cross examine the witnesses and also present evidence.
Following the preliminary hearing, the judge will either dismiss the charges against the defendant or schedule a trial.
What’s the Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing?
Think of a preliminary hearing as a court session that sets the stage for a trial. Prosecutors present evidence to justify trying you for the crime you have been charged with.
The prosecutor may use evidence such as video footage, testimony, and other hard evidence, including DNA and fingerprints, to demonstrate probable cause. According to the Legal Information Institute, this is known as prima facie evidence. If the judge determines there is probable cause, the court will hold you for trial.
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You Don’t Need a Preliminary Hearing
As a defendant, you have the right to waive your preliminary hearing and take your case directly to trial. However, we typically recommend you not waive that right because it prevents your defense attorney from challenging any evidence the prosecutor is using against you.
We understand you may want to exercise your right to a speedy trial, but you should not undervalue the importance of a preliminary hearing that could poke holes in the prosecutor’s case against you.
Your Rights During a Preliminary Hearing
Like during your initial arrest, you have rights at a preliminary hearing. When facing criminal charges, you have the right to:
- Remain silent
- Legal representation
- Testify in your defense
- “Plead the Fifth” to avoid self-incrimination
- Cross-examine witnesses
- Examine evidence
- Receive a transcript of the proceedings
A criminal defense attorney from our firm can explain your rights in more detail and represent you at the preliminary hearing. We will guide you throughout the process and advise you along the way. Our job is to be your advocate.
Can I Be Found Guilty at a Preliminary Hearing?
You cannot be found guilty at a preliminary hearing or face sentencing or penalties.
However, your defense attorney can challenge the evidence the prosecutor presents. If the prosecutor cannot show probable cause, the judge could dismiss or reduce the charges against you.
When and Where Does a Preliminary Hearing Occur?
A preliminary hearing usually occurs two to three weeks after your arrest in the district of the jurisdiction where the crime happened. According to the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Services, you’ll face a Magisterial District Judge, unless you appear in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, where a Municipal Judge will preside.
If your case proceeds to trial, it will be sent to Common Pleas Court.
What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing?
After the conclusion of your preliminary hearing, the judge will decide whether your case will move to trial. The court could release you after ruling that there is no probable cause to hold you, or it could reduce the charges against you.
However, if your case moves to the pre-trial phase, you can expect the following:
- Bond hearing: To set your bail, the judge will determine if you are a threat to the community or a flight risk. Bail is a deposit of money you can offer in exchange for your release from holding with the promise that you will appear at trial. If you fail to appear at your trial, you will lose your bail money.
- Motion hearing: Prosecutors and defense attorneys make motions to the judge to rule on certain issues before the trial, such as a bond modification or inclusion and exclusion of evidence.
- Discovery hearing: According to the American Bar Association, a discovery hearing prevents “trial by ambush,” meaning both sides will know the evidence being presented before the start of the trial.
- Plea negotiation: Your attorney may negotiate with the prosecutor for a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to avoid a lengthy trial, especially if the case against you is strong.
Learn More About What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing
Appearing at a preliminary hearing can be scary and intimidating. But it allows you and your defense to learn more about the charges and evidence against you.
The Law Offices of M.J. Snyder, LLC handles criminal defense cases in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. Our firm can represent you at preliminary hearings and fight for you at trial if necessary. Contact us for a free consultation today to learn more about what happens at a preliminary hearing and how we can build your defense.