An arrest and charge for a crime in Pennsylvania casts people into the state's complex criminal justice system. Once you become involved, you'll be required to endure multiple phases until you are tried. The most critical step of this process is the preliminary hearing. Once you've been suspected for committing a crime, you'll be sent a document called “Preliminary Hearing Notice.” This document details the date and time of your first court hearing - which must be attended - and the legal affirmation that you are now a criminal defendant who is now exposed to serious legal penalties.
Your immediate response to this notice should be to contact a criminal defense attorney. The help of a legal professional is an absolute must for people who want a favorable outcome. Retaining one prior to the date of a preliminary hearing will exponentially maximize your chances of success. For defendants in this predicament who don't understand what's in store for them, here is a detailed overview of preliminary hearings, what they entail, and what can be accomplished with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
What is a Preliminary Hearing?
A preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania is an opportunity for prosecution (the Commonwealth) to present a “prima facie” case. Essentially, a prosecutor must provide enough evidence to establish that a crime was possibly committed and that you were likely the one who did it. A preliminary hearing may resemble a trial in some aspects, but there are key differences that differentiate the separate phases of this process. The goal of a preliminary hearing and the evidentiary standards upheld by the court vastly distinguish this hearing from a trial.
Preliminary hearings are intended to ensure that there is enough sufficient evidence to justify putting a defendant on trial. In conducting these hearings, miscarriages of justice, such as unlawful arrests, detention, and other unwarranted consequences. The prosecution has a burden of providing evidence that substantiates probable cause - the evidentiary standard in these hearings - for a defendant to be officially charged. However, if the Commonwealth fails to fulfill the burden of proving a prima facie case, a defendant's case will be dismissed.
Probable cause exists when the evidence provided would lead a reasonable person to believe that a defendant committed an offense. 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 advance to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Where Do These Hearings Take Place?
Your preliminary hearing will be scheduled within the county and municipality in which the alleged crime took place. Factors such as 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 Pennsylvania
A preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania is usually scheduled within 10 days of the initial arrest, but scheduled dates may vary. When the date eventually arrives, you and your attorney will have a chance to examine evidence and witnesses and present an actual argument. Of course, it's the job of your attorney to do most of the legwork for you. They will argue your case and find weaknesses and inconsistencies in the prosecution's evidence. But the overall goal is to accomplish the plan you and your attorney should have previously agreed upon.
This plan could consist of dismissed charges, 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 individualized circumstance. A legal professional should have experience and skill in these situations to adequately execute this plan.
At the end of this hearing, a judge will decide, based on the facts that he or she has heard, if the burden of proof has been reached or not been reached by the prosecution. If it has been decided that probable cause has not been substantiated, your case will be dismissed. Defendants who get this outcome immediately file an expungement to rid their criminal record of charges. If the ruling is made in favor of the prosecution, the original charges pinned against you will stand, and you'll be notified of the date of your arraignment.
Some defendants become discouraged when they get an unfavorable verdict at a preliminary hearing, but they shouldn't. It's common for the prosecution to win at this stage of this process due to the very low burden of evidence that must be met in these hearings. As a result, the prosecution often wins with even the weakest evidence. Remember, the establishment of probable cause is in no way indicative of an actual trial outcome or conviction whatsoever.
The preliminary hearing will, however, set the stage for the next steps in the criminal process. By ensuring the strongest defense is presented at a preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania, a defendant will be in a better position to resolve his or her case at the trial stage if charges are held for court.
Waiving a Hearing
Although attending court for a preliminary hearing is mandatory, defendants are granted the option of skipping out if they want to through the form of a waiver. To waive a hearing sends the message that you acknowledge the Commonwealth could possibly meet its burden of proof and that you would like to skip this stage altogether. A waiver is no way an admission of guilt, so it can't be used against you. But it does rob you of specific rights that could be used to your advantage down the line. The decision to waive this hearing should be made after consulting with a legal representative who is knowledgeable of the law, the criminal process, and is aware of the potential benefits of a waiver in your individualized case.
Experienced Pennsylvania 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.