The preliminary hearing is the initial court appearance that you will be required to go to, once you have been charged with a crime in Philadelphia. Several very important things will happen at this hearing, making it crucial to make a good showing.
Having a criminal defense attorney at your side during this hearing – and with you beforehand, while you prepare for it – can make or break your case. Mistakes made during the preliminary hearing can radically change how the rest of your case progresses, and the effectiveness of your defense. Notifying a criminal defense attorney as soon as you are aware of a preliminary hearing, therefore, is the best thing that you can do to preserve a favorable outcome in your case.
What is a Preliminary Hearing?
A preliminary hearing is like a trial, but at a much earlier stage in the criminal justice process. Therefore, far fewer facts are known, the prosecution's case is weak, and your defense will still be in a primitive form. Despite this early stage, the court system demands preliminary hearings in order to determine if there is enough of a case to let the proceedings go forward.
The Purpose of Preliminary Hearings
Preliminary hearings serve an important purpose: they force prosecutors to present a prima facie case, or probable cause that the person being charged has committed the crime they are being charged with. If the court does not see that there is enough evidence to come close to obtaining a conviction, it will dismiss the case and spare the defendant the time, energy, and stress that comes with a prolonged trial.
Unlike in a regular trial, where the evidentiary standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard at the preliminary hearing is just probable cause. This means that prosecutors can satisfy the court and move the case forward with much less evidence – evidence that only makes a reasonable person think that a crime and all of its elements probably occurred. If prosecutors are able to do this, your case will continue to the next stage of the proceedings at the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. If prosecutors are not able to meet their evidentiary standard, the case will be dismissed.
The reality of preliminary hearings is that prosecutors rarely fail to establish probable cause that you were connected to a crime.
Where Do Preliminary Hearings Take Place?
If you are being charged for a crime that happened in Philadelphia, your preliminary hearing will take place in Municipal Court, near the Philadelphia Convention Center.
What to Expect
Typically, preliminary hearings are scheduled to happen in the immediate aftermath of an arrest, often within 10 days. During this time, you and your attorney will discuss what your options are, strategize, and formulate your priorities and interests.
When the hearing date arrives, you and your attorney will have a crucially important opportunity to learn what the prosecution has against you. You will learn who the witnesses will be, what kind of evidence has been obtained and how it was gathered, and what the prosecutor's argument will likely be, during the rest of the case. You will learn all of this as the prosecutor presses the judge at the Municipal Court to decide that there is, in fact, probable cause and that the case should go forward.
Typically, the real goal of a preliminary hearing is not to challenge the prosecutor's evidence, but rather to hear it and understand the case that will be pressed against you. However, there are many cases where raising immediate defenses against the prosecutor's case will have great impact. In some cases, these quick defenses can put enough holes in the prosecutor's case to convince a judge to dismiss the charges against you.
If the judge decides that the prosecution has shown probable cause, your case will continue to its next step: Arraignment. If the judge determines that there is no probable cause, your case will get dismissed and you should proceed immediately towards getting the charges expunged and clear your criminal record.
Why Preliminary Hearings are So Valuable
Preliminary hearings are invaluable to your case not because they provide an opportunity to challenge the prosecutor's case and gain a dismissal, but because they force the prosecutor to show his or her hand in your case. Seeing the evidence that they present during the preliminary hearing lets you and your attorney plan your defense effectively.
Waiving the Preliminary Hearing
Despite its value, many people who are facing a criminal charge nevertheless decide to waive their right to a preliminary hearing. For many, the decision to waive their right to the hearing is based on the fact that the prosecution rarely fails to show probable cause. Many defendants think that, because there is only a very slim chance of getting their case dismissed at the preliminary hearing, the better option is to simply waive it and let the case go on, without one.
However, this overlooks the important fact that the preliminary hearing is where you will first hear the case that will be presented against you. Waiving the preliminary hearing, therefore, is something that you should discuss with your criminal defense attorney before making the decision, on your own. The ramifications of waiving the hearing can be dire, as the case progresses.
Joseph D. Lento: Philadelphia's Criminal Defense Attorney
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense attorney who represents clients throughout Philadelphia. He knows the value of an effective defense during the preliminary hearing and can help you prepare for one if you have been charged with committing a crime in the city.
Contact him online or by phone at (215) 535-5353 if you have been charged with a crime, and are serious about your defense. Hiring him quickly after you receive your charges can give you the time to discuss your options and interests and prepare for the preliminary hearing. Once the hearing is over, there is no going back, and you must take the necessary steps to mount the strongest possible defense as early as possible.