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What is a Preliminary Hearing in Pennsylvania?

A Preliminary Hearing is what it says it is:  Preliminary.

It is your first opportunity in a formal court proceeding to take a bite of the prosecution's apple. 

It will be your first opportunity to challenge the basic sufficiency of the Commonwealth's case against you and engage in negotiations in order to determine what options may be available to you.

Whether you intend to fight the criminal accusations or negotiate a meaningful resolution that allows you to move forward in a positive direction at the conclusion of your case, an experienced and professional PA Criminal Defense Lawyer can maximize your opportunity to build a solid foundation for a strong defense.

Misplaced Emphasis on a Lower Burden of Proof at the Preliminary Stage

Just because the Preliminary Hearing is not the guilt or innocence phase of the case, some people minimize its importance. 

Don't be one of those people.

It is true:  the Preliminary Hearing is not the guilt or innocence stage of the case. 

The burden of proof that must be met is lower than at trial.  Your case will be heard by a single Magisterial District Judge, not a jury of your peers.  And, the Commonwealth does not have to prove its case against you beyond a reasonable doubt.

Prima Facie Burden of Proof

Instead, the prosecution must establish a 'prima facie' case: "that a crime was committed and the accused was the one who committed it."  Commonwealth v. Mullen, 333 A.2d 755 (Pa. 1975).  It is the equivalent of 'probable cause.'  Commonwealth v. Smith, 244 A.2d 787 (Pa.Super. 1968).

Ulimately, to determine whether the evidence presented by the prosecution is sufficient to move the case forward to the trial court level, the Magisterial District Judge must ask: 

if the evidence presented by the Commonwealth is accepted as true, is it more likely than not that the accused committed the crime(s) charged?  Commonwealth v. Wodjak, 466 A.2d 991 (Pa. 1983).

While, on its face, this inquiry emphasizes the fact that credibility is not an issue for the Magisterial District Court's consideration, it is also important to recognize that the prosecution must, nonetheless, present some evidence to support each and every element of the crime(s) charged.

A basic understanding of the burden placed on the prosecution at the Preliminary Hearing is important to develop an appreciation for the practical purpose it presents to a person accused of a crime:  An Opportunity.

An Opportunity to Inject Common Sense and Reason Back Into the Equation

The filing of criminal charges typically involves multiple people:  the accused, police, 'victim(s),' witness(es), and/or co-defendants.  When people are involved in a situation that has directly impacted their lives in some way, emotions usually run high and, in turn, influence their perceptions and perspectives in the moment.

This initial hearing offers an opportunity to remove those people involved in your case from the emotion of that moment in time when the criminal accusation arose.  With the benefit of hindsight and removed from the heat of the moment, a qualified criminal defense attorney can use this opportunity to control the context of the incident, inject common sense and reason back into the equation, and help the prosecution realize that their goals for the outcome of the case may be consistent with your own objectives (which would have been identified prior to your hearing).

An Opportunity to Build a Record of Testimony for Your Defense

Sometimes, we can only agree to disagree with the Commonwealth on what we define as a reasonable and meaningful outcome or resolution. 

If this is the case in your case, you want to identify this 'difference of opinions' at the earliest possible stage because you are entitled to have a hearing with testimony at this level (even if the evidence is assessed at a lower standard).

This hearing will offer an opportunity for a criminal attorney skilled in the art of cross-examination to build a record of testimony, which can be important for several reasons.

A Plan of Attack: Witness Credibility

First, while credibility is not directly at issue at this hearing level, it will be if the case goes to trial. 

By the time of the Preliminary Hearing, the prosecution's witnesses will have provided one or more statements to the police.  A record of their statements made during this hearing can also be preserved and, if your case goes to trial, these witnesses will have to testify again.

People do not tell the same story the same way every time.  Additionally, prosecution witnesses often maintain personal motives and biases.  As a result, their testimony gets better for the prosecution the closer the case gets to the guilt or innocence phase, which is inconsistent with reality where people's memories do not usually get better with time but worse.  By making a record of testimony, these inconsistencies can be developed and used during trial to attack a witness's credibility.

A Case for Suppression of Evidence: Illegal Searches & Seizures

Second, this hearing offers an opportunity to build a record of testimony for potential suppression or search and seizure issues.

Like credibility, the validity of a traffic stop or lawfulness of a search of a home are not ripe or open for the Magisterial District Judges consideration.  However, the strengths and weaknesses of possible suppression issues can be developed through cross-examination of the police and other witnesses. 

At this level, the prosecution's witnesses are typically less prepared or 'coached.' Additionally, at this point, the issues of contention will not have been laid out in an Omnibus Pretrial Motion to Suppress Evidence, which provides the prosecution with a roadmap of the issues you are challenging. Thus, this is a unique opportunity for an experienced criminal lawyer to develop the testimony in a manner that is most favorable to your defense.

A Flawed Prosecution: Inadequate Evidence

Finally, if clear deficiencies in the prosecution's case can be identified, there will be an opportunity for an attorney to present arguments to the court for the dismissal of some or all of the charges.  Candidly, it should be noted that the charges are dismissed at the Preliminary Hearing level in only very limited circumstances. However, if you are ill-prepared and not adequately represented, this opportunity may be missed where it does exist.

Get Help from an Experienced Professional Today!

If you or someone you care about has been accused of a crime and schedule to for a Preliminary Hearing, contact an experienced and professional PA Criminal Defense Attorney to maximize your opportunity to control the outcome of your case.

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