Be Prepared From the Start: The Basics of Preliminary Hearings

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The preliminary hearing is one of the first, most important steps in any new criminal case. If you or a loved one has been accused of a criminal offense you may be wondering what the role of the preliminary hearing is in the proceedings. You may be wondering what the potential outcomes of a preliminary hearing are, and you may have questions as to your rights and obligations in regards to the hearing.

At a preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth has the burden to show that they have what is called a prima facie case relating the charges alleged. Prima Facie is latin for “at first sight.” Generally speaking, the Commonwealth must present evidence and testimony that, if taken as true, would arise to a violation of the criminal code. The burden of proof is lower at a preliminary hearing, as hearsay is admissible as evidence. Also, the preliminary hearing is not the time for challenges based on the credibility of witnesses. Instead, the only assessment is whether, if what the Commonwealth is presenting is taken at face value, that those allegations would meet the elements of the crimes charged.

A majority of cases that reach a preliminary hearing are bound over for court. The preliminary hearing is not a trial. It is merely the beginning of your criminal case. In some cases the goal of the preliminary hearing is to have the charges dismissed based upon a finding of a lack of a prima facie case. However, a preliminary hearing serves other functions important to the defense. It is often the first opportunity to hear what the Commonwealth is offering as evidence against you. This is the first step to begin building a proper defense, figuring out who the witnesses will be and what potential evidence is out there ahead of discovery. Also witnesses for the Commonwealth will have testimony on the record that can be used against them at a potential suppression hearing or at trial.

In some cases, it may be a good idea to waive the preliminary hearing. Though a preliminary hearing is important in many cases, often times waiving a preliminary hearing can have benefits as well. An attorney may at times negotiate a reduction in bail or potential recommendations for programs such as ARD in which the waiver of the preliminary hearing is used as a bargaining chip.

If you or a loved one has an upcoming preliminary hearing, now is the time to retain an experienced criminal defense attorney. The preliminary hearing is the first of many strategic moves for defense counsel to handle that will begin to shape your entire case. Attorney Frank Walker has defended hundreds of criminal cases in Allegheny County and the surrounding areas and can aid you in building the best legal defense possible. Call the offices of Frank Walker Law at (412) 315-7441 to set up a consultation today!