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3 Things You Need to Know About a Preliminary Hearing

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In Pennsylvania, once criminal charges have been filed against you, a Preliminary Hearing will be scheduled before a Magisterial District Judge at a District Court Office.

Here are 3 Things You Need to Know About a Preliminary Hearing:

1. The Preliminary Hearing is what it says it is:  Preliminary.

The Preliminary Hearing is the initial hearing following the filing of criminal charges.  Most cases will proceed to the Court of Common Pleas (The Main Court or Trial Court Level) following this hearing.  However, the manner in which a case proceeds to the next level will vary.

The Preliminary Hearing is the first opportunity to begin to address a criminal case from both a practical and legal standpoint.

From a practical standpoint, in most cases, it is the first opportunity engage in some level of discussion or negotiations with the prosecuting officer or an Assistant District Attorney.  During these discussions, an experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to address any deficiencies in the prosecution's case and offer any mitigating circumstances your case may present.

From a legal standpoint, this will be the first opportunity to challenge the basic sufficiency of the prosecution's against you.  If you elect to have a hearing with testimony, the judge will hear the evidence presented by the prosecution.  A skilled criminal defense lawyer will use this as an opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses offered by the prosecution and build a record of testimony.  This is critical in preparing the case for future litigation, whether in an effort to attack a witnesses credibility at trial or prepare the case for suppression of evidence.  (To learn more about suppression of evidence, read "What is a Motion to Suppress?".)

2.  The Preliminary Hearing is not the guilt or innocence phase of the case.

The Preliminary Hearing is not the outcome-determinative phase of the case.  The Magisterial District Judge hearing the case is not there to determine a person's guilt or innocence.  This hearing before the Magisterial District Court is not the time or place for a court to determine whether an illegal search or seizure has occurred.

Unlike a trial, the prosecution does not have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt at this level.  At a Preliminary Hearing, the Commonwealth must establish a prima facie case.  "A prima facie case consists of evidence, read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, that sufficiently establishes both the commission of a crime and that the accused is probably the perpetrator of that crime."  Said another way, the Commonwealth must present evidence that, if accepted as true, would establish "sufficient probable cause that the defendant committed the offense."  Commonwealth v. Keller, 823 A.2d 1004, 1010 (Pa.Super. 2003).

Ulimately, there are two take-aways necessary for understanding the prima facie burden of proof that the Commonwealth must meet at the Preliminary Hearing.  First, the prosecution must establish some evidence that a crime was committed and the defendant committed it.  Second, the evidence presented must be accepted as true by the Magisterial District Judge, which means witness credibility is not an issue at this stage.

If your attorney does not have an adequate understanding of this burden, they cannot set reasonable expectations for you leading up to this hearing and may engage in a strategy at this stage that could be fatal to your goals for the outcome of your case.

3.  The Preliminary Hearing may be the most important stage in the process because it sets the foundation and tone for your entire case

Just because the Preliminary Hearing is not the guilt or innocence stage of your case, does not mean that it is not an important stage in your case.

Consider this:  When you have been charged with a crime, you have been labeled as a "Defendant," identified by a case-tracking number, and judged by the name and nature of the crime(s) with which you are accused.

It can be a stigmatizing and de-humanizing experience.

The prosecution has already begun to leverage its power and stack the chips against you.  The Preliminary Hearing will be your first and best opportunity to have an experienced criminal defense lawyer level the playing field. 

You need an attorney who will work hard to understand the circumstances that led to the criminal charge because this tells the story of your experience, not a still-frame snapshot of a single worst moment in time. This will bring the human component back into the equation, return the focus to you as a person, and reverse the stigma created by the nature of the charges you face.

Whether you intend to fight the charges or work out a deal, you need a lawyer who help you define your personal goals for the outcome of your case and develop a strategy to achieve those objectives.  A personalized approach is the key to minimizing - if not eliminating - the consequences of the criminal accusation.

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About the Author:

Attorney Shawn M. Curry is an experienced criminal defense lawyer dedicated to helping people accused of crimes restore their life.  With his practice exclusively devoted to Criminal & DUI Defense, he is focused on developing tailored defense stategies on an individualized, case-by-case basis. This focus is driven by his personal commitment to each person he helps.  

Contact Shawn Curry Law today: 717-525-8733.

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