If you have been arrested and charged with a criminal offense, there is a legal process that the state is required to go through in order to try and prove that you are guilty of a crime. One of the first steps in this process after being charged is called a preliminary hearing. Many people are unaware of the purpose of a preliminary hearing and its impact on the legal case. However, at Disney Law, our team is ready to aggressively defend your legal rights during a preliminary hearing and at every step of your criminal case. To learn more about your legal options if you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, call or text Robert Disney at 412-999-5765 or contact us today to schedule a free consultation.
The Pennsylvania criminal court system is made up of different levels and different types of courts. There is a Court of Common Pleas that exists in every county in the state that usually hears DUI cases, drug cases, and any other case graded higher than a summary offense. There are also several courts called District Magistrates that may be spread throughout each county. When a criminal charge is brought, it is filed with the district court that covers the area where the crime allegedly took place.
Once the complaint is filed with the court, the person charged is informed by mail to appear for a preliminary hearing for more minor offenses. If the person charged has been incarcerated in lieu of bail for more serious crimes, they are transported to the court for the hearing by the county sheriff. Once the preliminary hearing is over, if the judge determines that the case should move forward it is bound over to the Court of Common Pleas in that county for trial.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is enough evidence presented by the state to move the case forward in the legal process. Another way to look at preliminary hearings is that they are the gatekeeper hearings to prevent frivolous or unnecessary criminal proceedings from clogging up the criminal court system; they hold the state accountable to certain standards when charging citizens with a criminal offense.
There are two parts to the determination of whether a case should move forward at a preliminary hearing. First, is the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing sufficient to create probable cause that a crime was committed? Second, is the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing sufficient to create probable cause that the person charged committed the crime? The answer must be yes to both questions in order for the case to move forward in the criminal legal process.
It is important to note what a preliminary hearing is not meant for as well as its intended purpose. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is not to determine whether the person accused of a crime is guilty or innocent. The standard of proof is much lower in a preliminary hearing than the standard of proving beyond a reasonable doubt at trial that a person is guilty of a crime.
In addition, a preliminary hearing is not meant to establish all of the evidence that is to be presented at trial if the case moves beyond the preliminary hearing phase. The rules of evidence are more relaxed in a preliminary hearing than in an actual trial, which means that some evidence may be allowed at the preliminary hearing that would not be allowed at the trial phase. For example, hearsay evidence may be presented during a preliminary hearing, and credibility determinations are typically not made by the judge at this stage, either. As such, unreliable witnesses may be allowed to give testimony that may be discredited or not allowed at trial.
A preliminary hearing can feel similar to a trial, as the state must present its evidence in order for the case to move on to the trial process. Except for the most significant cases, the assistant district attorney typically handles the preliminary hearings for criminal cases. The state has the burden in these hearings to prove the two elements of probable cause — that a crime was committed and that the accused may have committed it.
The prosecutor is allowed to call witnesses at a preliminary hearing, which usually includes the police officers or other authority figures involved in the case as well as any other witnesses to the alleged crime. The accused is allowed to have a lawyer present during the preliminary hearing and cross examine witnesses. Physical evidence may also be presented at the preliminary hearing as additional evidence to prove probable cause. After the evidence has been presented, each side is allowed to make arguments before the judge decides whether enough evidence exists to move the case forward to trial.
The preliminary hearing is important for a number of different reasons. First, it is the first opportunity to learn the extent of the evidence that may be presented in the criminal case. Second, it is a chance for the criminal defense attorney to meet with the prosecutor to discuss the potential of dismissing charges, mitigating charges to something lesser, or negotiating a plea deal for the accused. Third, if the evidence presented by the state is weak, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to argue that probable cause has not been established and get the charges dismissed. The preliminary hearing sets the stage for the remainder of the criminal process in that case.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, call or text Robert Disney at 412-999-5765 or contact us today to schedule a case consultation and learn more about your legal options.
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