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What is a Preliminary Hearing?

June 25, 2020 Federal Criminal Attorneys

A type of legal proceeding that occurs before a criminal trial is known as a preliminary hearing. This is similar to an arraignment. There are some important differences between these two legal procedures. Each of them serves a different purpose.

Enough Evidence And Entering A Plea
A preliminary hearing is often considered to be a trial before a trial. The job of a judge in this situation is not to determine if a defendant is or is not guilty. A judge is to determine if there is sufficient evidence for a defendant to stand trial. During an arraignment, a defendant can file their plea of guilty or not guilty to the charges made against them. An arraignment occurs before a preliminary hearing.

Probable Cause
The legal standard used by a judge to determine if enough evidence has been produced by the prosecution during the preliminary hearing is known as probable cause. There must be sufficient evidence to convince a jury a crime was committed. It must also show the defendant committed the alleged crime. Probable cause is considered the presence of a logical basis to engage in a person’s prosecution. This is different from the strong evidence of guilt required for a conviction known as beyond a reasonable doubt. Winning at a preliminary hearing can be more of a challenge than winning during a trial.

Preliminary Hearing
There are certain things a person can expect to happen at a preliminary hearing. The presiding judge will listen to arguments from a defendant’s attorney as well as the prosecutor. A prosecutor may call witnesses to testify. They can also introduce physical evidence. All of this will be to convince the presiding judge there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial. The attorney for the defense is allowed to cross-examine the government’s witnesses. They are permitted to question all of the evidence presented against their client. Their goal will be to convince the judge the case presented by the prosecutor isn’t strong enough to proceed to trial. The defense attorney will try to show how the case against their client should be dismissed.

Not In Every Case
It is important to realize a preliminary hearing does not occur in all criminal cases when a defendant has entered a plea of not guilty. Some states only hold preliminary hearings when a defendant is charged with a felony. It is always possible for a criminal case to be resolved with the use of a plea bargain before a preliminary hearing. The prosecution may provide the best possible plea offer right before a preliminary hearing. This is done when they have invested a minimal amount of effort into the case. Should a preliminary hearing go well for the prosecution, they may refuse to offer any type of plea. If a preliminary hearing goes badly for the prosecution, the defense is in a position to negotiate the best possible terms or have the case against their client dismissed. How to handle the agreements and timing of negotiations around a preliminary hearing is a very serious consideration.

Half-Way Point
This is often considered the half-way point of a felony case. A preliminary hearing is required to be held within ten court days from a defendant’s arraignment. It is common for a defendant to waive the time requirement so a preliminary hearing can take place later. In some cases, the preliminary hearing may not occur for several months.

At a preliminary hearing, the credibility of a witness is not an issue. A judge is required by law to accept the testimony the witnesses provide by the prosecution. A judge is not permitted to determine the credibility of a witness or if the prosecution will win at trial. An exception could involve video. If there is a video that directly contradicts the statements of an eyewitness, a judge may be moved to consider arguments of credibility.

Many attorneys believe a preliminary hearing as a way for a court to screen out cases that won’t be able to be proven later at trial. These hearings can be a little as ten minutes and some complicated cases have lasted for several days. Anyone who is arrested for a crime and facing a preliminary hearing will need to have an experienced attorney represent them. They will know the best ways to discredit the evidence, witnesses, and do what is necessary to get their client’s case dismissed



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