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Preliminary Hearings

Preliminary Hearings in Pennsylvania Criminal Cases

What is a preliminary hearing?

A preliminary hearing (sometimes called a “prelim”) is a pre-trial proceeding where a judge decides whether there is enough evidence to support a trial. Specifically, the judge determines whether there is probable cause to believe:

  1. That a crime was committed; and
  2. That the defendant is likely the person who committed it.

It is important to note that the standard of proof for a preliminary hearing is lower than the standard required for a trial. The preliminary hearing only determines whether a case will proceed to trial.

Just because charges are upheld at a preliminary hearing does not mean someone is “guilty.”

What happens during a preliminary hearing?

During a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor (usually from the District Attorney’s office) presents evidence to the judge. The prosecutor might ask police officers and other witnesses to testify about the case.

The defense attorney then has the right to cross-examine those witnesses. While the defense can also present their own witnesses and evidence, it is ultimately up to the prosecution to prove their case against the defendant.

Both sides are allowed to make final arguments before the judge decides whether there is enough probable cause to support the charges against the defendant.

Can a case be dismissed at preliminary hearing?

If the judge finds that there is sufficient probable cause, the criminal charges can proceed to trial at the Court of Common Pleas. If the judge finds that there is not enough evidence, the charges may be dismissed or amended.

What happens after a preliminary hearing?

If all charges against the defendant are withdrawn or dismissed, then the case is over! Defendants who were incarcerated as they waited for their preliminary hearing may be transported back to the jail for processing before they are released.

If any charges against the defendant are “held for court”, then the defendant will be scheduled to appear for a Formal Arraignment at the county Court of Common Pleas.

How is a preliminary hearing different from a trial?

In many ways, a preliminary hearing is similar to a trial: both sides have the opportunity to examine and cross-examine witnesses, both sides have an opportunity to argue their case, and a judge ultimately decides the outcome.

However, there are several key differences between a preliminary hearing and a trial:

  • At a preliminary hearing, both sides often rely only upon an initial police report to question the witness(es) and argue their case. At trial, both sides have access to the full materials which the prosecutor intends to use as evidence of a crime, including investigative reports, expert reports, ballistics reports, DNA test results, witness statements, photo/video/audio recordings, phone logs, financial records, and so forth.
  • At a preliminary hearing, the judge does not decide whether someone is “guilty” or “not guilty”. They only decide whether charges can proceed to trial at the higher court, the Court of Common Pleas.

What does it mean to waive a preliminary hearing?

In some cases, an attorney might recommend waiving the preliminary hearing and sending the case directly to the Court of Common Pleas. There are many reasons an attorney might recommend this. Some of the common reasons are below:

  • If a defendant is eligible for a diversionary program with the District Attorney’s office, it might be required to waive the preliminary hearing.
  • If the facts of a case are very sensitive or potentially damaging to the defendant, an attorney might recommend waiving the preliminary hearing in order to limit the damaging testimony.

As always, any additional questions about preliminary hearings in Pennsylvania should be addressed with an attorney’s office.

If you or a loved one is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania, it is important to be represented by an experienced criminal defense firm. Contact Kenny, Burns & McGill right away to discuss your legal options.

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