If you’re charged with a crime in Pennsylvania, one of the first steps in your criminal case is a preliminary hearing. In most counties, preliminary hearings are conducted for all types of crimes, except summary offenses (which are more minor types of criminal offenses, such as disorderly conduct, loitering, or public drunkenness).
On this page, we provide you with some basics about preliminary hearings and why they are important, and then we answer a number of frequently asked questions. If, after reviewing this page, you have more questions, we welcome you to reach out to us at the law offices of James H. Bonner, Esq.
It can be challenging to decide who to hire when you are dealing with criminal charges. Choosing an inexperienced lawyer could have detrimental consequences for your case and create long-lasting problems in your life. James H. Bonner can make sure that you receive the highest quality legal representation for your preliminary hearing and all subsequent court proceedings. To set up a consultation, call attorney James H. Bonner today at 610-450-4555 or fill out the contact form for a callback.
What Exactly Is a Preliminary Hearing, And How Does It Work?
A preliminary hearing is one of the first significant court proceedings that will take place after you have been arrested. But you need to remember that a preliminary hearing is not a trial. At the hearing, the Commonwealth has to establish only a prima facie case against you. That means that the prosecution must show that it is more likely than not that a crime was committed and that you committed it. This burden of proof is substantially lower than what has to be proven at trial.
To establish a prima facie case, the prosecutor will not need to call many witnesses to the stand and will only be required to present limited evidence to the court. The prosecutor might call only one witness for this hearing, yet at a later trial the prosecutor may call ten witnesses. The prosecutor is not required to share any evidence with you until the morning of the preliminary hearing.
Once the preliminary hearing is concluded, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence to hold the case over for trial. If the prosecutor did not provide enough evidence to establish a prima facie case, the judge could throw out some or all of the charges.
The Importance of a Preliminary Hearing for The Defendant
There are several goals for the preliminary hearing, and they include the following:
- Getting The Case Dismissed
If the judge determines that the prosecutor has not met his burden of proof, the court could throw out the entire case.
- Getting The More Serious Charges Thrown Out
Even though the judge may not be inclined to dismiss the entire case at the preliminary hearing, the judge can throw out any of the charges if he or she believes that the prosecution has not met its burden of proof. Additionally, the judge may lower the gradation of certain charges based on the testimony and the evidence. For example, if you are charged with aggravated assault as a felony of the first degree, the judge may find that the evidence is actually more in line with a felony of the second degree, which is less severe.
- Lock In Testimony
All testimony during a preliminary hearing is transcribed. Thus, when you go to trial, your attorney will have a record of everything said at the preliminary hearing. If the complainant or one of the prosecutor’s witnesses changes his or her testimony at trial, your lawyer can use that record to show the judge or jury that they have changed their story, which might suggest that they are lying or are not a credible witness.
- Evaluate The Credibility of Complainant/Witnesses
At the preliminary hearing, your attorney has the chance to watch and assess the credibility of the complainant and any witnesses who testify. It is important to observe how a witness will come across to a judge or jury during the trial. Do they seem believable? Are they nervous? Is their story constantly changing? Do they seem entirely truthful? Are they likable? These things are critical for a lawyer to know so that they can appropriately prepare for a trial or other negotiations.
- Bail Reductions
If you are in jail at the time of your preliminary hearing, your attorney can make a bail reduction motion at the end of the hearing. Bail motions are often successful if some of the charges get thrown out or reduced. It is also possible that the facts of the case just are not as serious as the police report made them seem, so the judge may be willing to reduce a defendant’s bail, even if no charges are thrown out.
These are just some of the goals for a preliminary hearing. These hearings are important, so it is critical to make sure you choose the right attorney.
Some Frequently Asked Questions
Preliminary hearings can be daunting, so we have compiled some of the most common questions we receive about these types of proceedings.
Q: What is the best-case scenario in a preliminary hearing?
A: The best outcome at a preliminary hearing is having all charges dismissed. If the case isn’t dismissed and you are in jail, another great outcome would be having bail reduced so you can go home while the case is ongoing.
Q: What is the worst thing that can happen for a defendant at a preliminary hearing?
A: Generally speaking, the worst-case scenario is that all charges get held for trial. Additionally, the judge can decide to increase bail so that you are less likely to be released. It’s even possible for the judge to revoke or increase bail and take you into custody at the end of the preliminary hearing.
Q: Do I have to testify at the preliminary hearing?
A: Typically, you will not testify. It is very rare that anything positive could come from a defendant testifying at this hearing, so it is usually best to avoid it. Everything you testify to would be on the record, so it locks in all of your testimony for the trial, allowing the prosecutor to learn more about your defense strategy, which is not helpful at all for you.
Q: Can the judge find you guilty at the preliminary hearing?
A: No. The only determination that the judge can make at the hearing is whether there is enough evidence to have a trial. There are no findings of innocence or guilt at this stage.
Contact James H. Bonner and Get the Representation You Deserve
Those charged with criminal offenses in Pennsylvania need an experienced, dedicated criminal defense attorney. Accordingly, we invite you to call James H. Bonner, Esq. While the majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, James H. Bonner is never afraid to take any case to trial. He has tried dozens of jury trials, and he will always fight for you from start to finish.
If you are being investigated by the police or concerned about possible criminal charges, we can help. James H. Bonner has successfully defended hundreds of clients against all types of criminal charges. For knowledge, experience, commitment, natural talent, and superb preparation, call attorney James H. Bonner today at 610-450-4555 or fill out the contact form to schedule a consultation today.