An arrest and criminal charge is the start of a long and rigorous process you will have to endure until you are ultimately tried. The most critical step of this process is the preliminary hearing.
Once you have been informed of your preliminary hearing date, your immediate response should be to contact a criminal defense attorney. A legal professional will maximize your chances of success throughout this process. For defendants in this situation 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 preliminary hearing in Montgomery County presents an opportunity for the prosecution (the Commonwealth) to make a “prima facie” case. This requires that they provide evidence that supports all of the elements of an alleged crime and proof that implies you are the one who committed this crime. A preliminary hearing resembles a trial in some aspects, but there are significant differences between the two phases of this process. Two major distinctions are goals and evidentiary standards.
Preliminary hearings were essentially designed to prevent miscarriages of justice, like unlawful arrests, detention, and other unwarranted repercussions. This is why the focus of this hearing is to ensure that there is sufficient evidence to justify putting a defendant on trial. Unlike a trial, there will not be a verdict of guilty or not guilty at this stage. In the event that a judge determines that the prosecution has substantiated probable cause - the evidentiary standard in preliminary hearings - a defendant will be charged. But if the prosecutor fails to fulfill the burden of proving a prima facie case, the case will be dismissed.
Probable cause exists when the evidence provided would lead a reasonable person to believe that a defendant committed a crime. It is a very low evidentiary standard. To reach it, the prosecution need only present testimony and evidence that barely proves each element of a crime, and that the jury believes to be true. If this burden is met, a defendant's case will proceed to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Where Do These Hearings Take Place?
In Montgomery County, your preliminary hearing will be scheduled in the municipality in which the alleged crime took place. Montgomery County is a large region with 30 Magisterial 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 Montgomery County
A preliminary hearing in Montgomery County is usually scheduled within 10 days of the initial arrest, but scheduled dates may vary. When the date eventually comes, you and your attorney will have a chance to examine evidence and witnesses and present an actual argument. Of course, your attorney will do most of the legwork. Their job is to argue your case, and find weaknesses and inconsistencies in the prosecution's evidence. But the overall goal is to accomplish the goal you and your attorney should have previously agreed upon.
This goal could include dismissed or withdrawn charges, a negotiated plea deal with the prosecution, or a sentence reduction. Regardless of what the most ideal and realistic outcome for you may be, it should reflect your best interest in your unique circumstance. A legal professional should have the experience and skill to successfully execute this plan.
After all sides have been heard, a judge will decide if the burden of proof has been met or has not been reached by the Commonwealth. If it is decided that probable cause has not been substantiated, your case will be dismissed. Defendants who are fortunate enough to get this outcome oftentimes immediately 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 feel discouraged when they get an unfavorable verdict at a preliminary hearing, but they shouldn't. It's actually relatively common for the prosecution to prevail at this stage of the process. Given the very low burden of evidence that is met in these hearings, the prosecution often wins with even the weakest evidence. It's important you remember that the establishment of probable cause is in no way indicative of an actual trial outcome or conviction whatsoever. In addition, the preliminary hearing will "set the stage" for the next steps in the criminal process. By making certain the strongest defense is presented at a preliminary hearing in Montgomery County, a defendant will be in a stronger position to resolve his or her case at the trial stage if any charges are held for court.
Waiving a Hearing
Attending court for a preliminary hearing is mandatory. But defendants are granted the option of skipping out if they want to if they choose to waive it. To waive a hearing communication that you understand that the Commonwealth will meet its burden of proof in a hearing, that you would just like to advance to the next phase. A waiver is not an admission of guilt, so it can't be used against. But it does deny defendants of specific 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 who is fully knowledgeable of the law, the trial process, and the potential benefits of a waiver can help you make an informed decision. Defendants who've acquired charges due to drugs or alcohol may be qualified to enter an accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program, where waiving this hearing is required. Waiving a hearing may also be best for defendants who must honor the agreement of a prospective plea to reduced charges for example. An attorney with experience in dealing with these matters will be able to help you make the right decision.
Experienced Montgomery County Criminal Defense 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.