Being arrested and charged with a crime in Pennsylvania hurls you into the state's criminal justice system. Once you're involved, you'll have to endure the entirety of the overwhelming criminal prosecution process. The first and most critical step of this process is the preliminary hearing. You've likely been informed of your official charges and this hearing by means of a document titled “Preliminary Hearing Notice.” Within this document is the date and time of your first court hearing - that you must attend - and the legal affirmation that you are now a criminal defendant who could potentially be facing serious penalties.
In light of this information, your immediate response should be to contact a criminal defense attorney. A legal professional will make this process exponentially easier for you. Retaining one prior to the date of a preliminary hearing is ideal for people who strive for favorable results. For defendants in this situation who don't have a coherent understanding of what is going to happen next, here is a detailed overview of preliminary hearings, what to expect, and what can be accomplished with the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney.
What is a Preliminary Hearing?
A Bucks County preliminary hearing is an opportunity for the prosecution (The Commonwealth) to establish that a crime was committed and that you are the one who probably committed it. This is known as a “prima facie” case. Although this hearing may resemble a trial, it's differentiated from one due to its goal and standard of evidence.
The primary function of a preliminary hearing is to ensure that there is sufficient evidence to put a defendant on trial. The failure to provide evidence from the prosecution deters the occurrence of an unlawful arrest and detention.
If it is proven that the prosecution has enough proof to substantiate probable cause, you will be charged. Probable cause is a very low evidentiary standard. The prosecution need only to present testimony and evidence that is accepted as true by a jury to prove each element of a crime. If this burden is met, a case will progress to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Where Do These Hearings Take Place?
In Bucks County, a preliminary hearing will be scheduled in the municipality in which the alleged offense took place. Bucks County is a large region that has been divided into 15 districts with one court located in each. Where you were arrested and the police department that made the arrest will dictate where your preliminary hearing will be located.
What to Expect at a Preliminary Hearing in Bucks County
A preliminary hearing in Bucks County usually occurs within 10 days of the initial arrest, but dates may vary. At the hearing, you and your attorney will have the right to examine evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and present an actual argument. Your attorney will expectedly be doing most of the legwork, by finding inconsistencies and weaknesses in the prosecution's case. By this time, you and your attorney should have come up with a plan that suits your best interest. This could be to get your charges dismissed, withdrawn, or reduced to lesser charges. It could also include speaking with the prosecutor ahead of time to negotiate before the actual hearing ensues. Whatever your agreed upon plans are, your attorney should be familiar enough with the process to execute.
If, after this hearing, a judge believes the Commonwealth did not meet the burden of proof, the case will be dismissed. Defendants oftentimes file an expungement after this verdict to rid their criminal record of charges. However, if the burden of proof is met, the charges against you will be imposed, bail will be set, and you'll be notified of your arraignment date.
Some defendants get discouraged by the outcome of a preliminary hearing, but they shouldn't be. Given the low burden, the prosecution often wins with even the weakest evidence. It's important to remember that the establishment of probable cause in a preliminary hearing is not indicative of an actual conviction whatsoever.
Waiving A Hearing
Although attending court on the date of your hearing is non-negotiable, defendants still have the option of waiving their preliminary hearing to speed up the process. To waive a hearing basically means that you acknowledge that the Commonwealth could meet its burden of proof and that you just want to move the case forward to arraignment. A waiver is not an admission of guilt, but it does rob defendants of important rights that cannot be restored down the line.
Whether or not this decision is best for your case depends on your circumstances. Only an attorney will be able to advise you of the possible benefits of a waiver. Some DUI defendants do so to enter an accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program, while others do so in agreement with a plea to reduced charges for example. Only an attorney who understands the facts of your case can help make an informed decision on whether to waive a preliminary hearing or not.
Experienced Bucks County Criminal Defense Attorney
If you received notification of a preliminary hearing in the mail, it is imperative that you contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. As mentioned above, Bucks county hearings oftentimes are scheduled within 10 days of an initial arrest, giving you and your attorney very little time to prepare. In order to maximize your chances of a favorable outcome at this stage in the process, you absolutely need the help of a skilled and experienced attorney.
Joseph D. Lento has represented numerous clients at preliminary hearings on charges ranging from minor offenses to serious felonies. Every case calls for planning, strategizing, and attention to detail. If you've been charged with any crime and have been ordered to attend a preliminary hearing, contact Joseph D. Lento today online or by phone at (215) 535-5355 at the earliest available opportunity.