An arrest and criminal charge is just the beginning of a long process you will have to endure until you are ultimately tried or the case is otherwise resolved. The first and most critical step of this process is the preliminary hearing. You'll receive notice of this hearing and your official charges through the mail by means of a document titled “Preliminary Hearing Notice.” In this document is the date and time of your preliminary hearing - that you are required to attend - and the legal confirmation that you are now a criminal defendant facing potential penalties.
Once you have been informed of a preliminary hearing, your immediate response should be to contact a criminal defense attorney. A legal professional will maximize your chances of success throughout this process. Retaining one before you attend a preliminary hearing is ideal for people who want favorable results. For defendants in this predicament who don't have a clear understanding of what is going on, here is a detailed overview of what a preliminary hearing entails, and what can be achieved with the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney.
What is a Preliminary Hearing?
A Delaware County preliminary hearing is an opportunity for the prosecution (the Commonwealth) to establish a “prima facie” case. This means that they have the burden of proving that it is likely that a crime was committed, and that you are the one who probably committed it. Although a preliminary hearing may resemble a trial, there are some key differences between the two phases of this process. The goal of a preliminary hearing and the evidentiary standards upheld in these settings vastly differentiate it.
Preliminary hearings were developed to deter the occurrence of unlawful arrests, detention, and other unwarranted consequences. Unlike a trial, there will not be a verdict of guilty or not guilty at this stage. Its main function is to ensure that there is enough sufficient evidence to justify putting a defendant on trial. If a judge determines that the prosecution has substantiated probable cause - the evidentiary standard in these cases - a defendant will be charged. However, if the prosecutor fails to fulfill their burden of proving a prima facie case, the case will be dismissed.
Probable cause is an incredibly low evidentiary standard. To reach this standard, the prosecution need only present testimony and evidence that barely proves each element of a crime. Most, if not all, of this evidence is oftentimes accepted as true by a jury in these cases. If this burden is met, a defendant's case will progress to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Where Do These Hearings Take Place?
In Delaware County, your preliminary hearing will be scheduled in the municipality in which the alleged offense took place. Delaware County is a huge region with 32 district courts. Factors like where you were arrested and the police department that made your arrest will determine where your preliminary hearing will be scheduled.
What to Expect at a Preliminary Hearing in Delaware County
A preliminary hearing in Delaware County typically ensues within 10 days of an initial arrest, but scheduled dates may vary. At this hearing, you and your attorney will be granted the right to examine evidence, present an argument and cross-examine witnesses. As expected, your attorney will be doing the majority of the work. Their duty is to effectively argue your case and to find weaknesses in the prosecution's case. But the overall goal is to achieve the goal you and your attorney should have agreed upon.
This goal could consist of dismissed or withdrawn charges, negotiating a plea deal with the prosecution, or a sentence reduction. Regardless of what the ideal outcome is for you, it should completely reflect your best interest. A legal professional should have the experience and skill to properly execute.
If, after all sides are heard, a judge believes that the burden of proof has not been met by the Commonwealth, your case will be dismissed. Defendants in this predicament typically file an expungement to rid their criminal record of charges. But if the burden of proof is met, the charges against you will stand, and you'll be notified of the date of your arraignment.
Some defendants may feel defeated if they get an unfavorable verdict at a preliminary hearing, but it's actually pretty common for the prosecution to win at this stage of the process. Given the very low burden of proof that is met in these cases, the prosecution often wins with even the weakest evidence. It's important you remember that the establishment of probable cause in a case is never indicative of an actual trial outcome or conviction whatsoever. As importantly, the preliminary hearing can "set the stage" for a later trial, so despite the above potential concern, a defendant must make certain his or her interests are protected as best as possible at a preliminary hearing in Delaware County so as to be in the strongest position come the prospective trial stage.
Waiving a Hearing
Coming to court on your preliminary hearing court date is mandatory. But defendants have the option of skipping this hearing altogether if they choose to waive it. To waive a hearing basically communications that you acknowledge the Commonwealth will meet its burden of proof in a hearing, and that you just want your case to proceed to the next phase. A waiver is in no way an admission of guilt, so it cannot be used against you. However, it does rob defendants of certain rights that can be potentially used to their advantage down the line.
The decision to waive a preliminary hearing depends on your individualized circumstances. Only a legal representative is fully knowledgeable enough of the law, the trial process, and the possible benefits of a waiver to make an informed decision in your life. For defendants who've acquired charges involving drugs or alcohol, it may be necessary to waive a hearing for admission to an accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program. Another example of why it may be in a defendant's best interests to waive a preliminary hearing is to honor the agreement of a prospective plea to reduced charges. Such a decision will be determined by the defendant's individual circumstances and will ultimately be guided by what is in the defendant's best interests.
Experienced Delaware County Criminal Defense Attorney
Joseph D. Lento has represented countless clients at preliminary hearings on charges ranging from lesser 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.