Understand What Happens At A Preliminary Hearing

If you've landed in some legal trouble, the next few weeks or months can be very confusing. One of the most confusing events, for many people, is the preliminary hearing. This is what will happen and what you should know.

The Preliminary Hearing Does Not Decide Guilt.

Your preliminary hearing (or "prelim") isn't a trial. It's simply a chance for the judge to look at (some of ) the evidence that the prosecutor has against you. At that point, the judge has to decide if there's enough "probable cause" for you to stand trial.

Keep in mind that the goals of a preliminary hearing are vastly different than that of a trial. If your case eventually heads to trial, that's when the focus will shift to whether or not you can be proven guilty of any crime.

The Prosecution Only Has To Show A Minimal Amount Of Proof In Order To Proceed.

Because the goals are different, preliminary hearings are significantly different from trials in many ways. The way that you can expect the attorneys to behave is different also.

The prosecution has a much lower burden of proof. In other words, the prosecution doesn't have to prove anything "beyond a reasonable doubt." He or she only has to prove that:

  1. a crime was committed, and 
  2. there's enough evidence to indicate that you are the guilty party.

Prelims are designed to protect people against unreasonable prosecution and weed out weak cases that obviously won't support a conviction. As such, the prosecution only has to make a case to the judge, so no jury is present.

The decision about whether or not to proceed to the next stage of trial (unless your defense attorney can persuade the prosecutor to drop the case) is entirely up to the judge.

Prelims are short. Some only take a few minutes. Others, if they are more complicated and involve a lot of evidence, may take a couple hours.

Your Attorney's Focus Is On Exploring The Case Against You, Not Disproving It.

Don't be shocked if your attorney doesn't offer any evidence in your defense at the prelim. He or she may feel that there is no way to prevent the prosecution from going forward with the case, simply because the standard of proof is so low. 

Instead, your defense attorney will use the prelim to get a better idea about how strong the prosecution's case against you really is. He or she will try to determine how credible the witnesses against you are, and may try to get their testimony on record right then - so that you can better prepare your defense.

You can expect your attorney to argue against the admissibility of some of the evidence against you, and to argue that there isn't enough evidence to take the prosecution any further. He or she may attack the legality of the arrest warrant or the circumstances of your arrest, in particular, to try to get the case dismissed.

Your attorney will use everything that he or she learns - including the strength of the witnesses, the character of the arresting officer, and any evidence put forward by the prosecution - to start building your defense strategy. 

There Are Several Possible Outcomes Of A Prelim.

Most of the time, a prelim will end with the defendant being "bound over" for trial. That means that the judge has decided to allow the case to proceed.

However, not all preliminary hearings end that way. In some cases, your defense attorney may be able to get the charges reduced, especially if the evidence against you is somewhat weak.

The best possible outcome is the judge will dismiss the case. Sometimes your defense is very clear and absolute (such as an alibi that the judge finds highly convincing). Sometimes, key defense witnesses (or even the alleged victim in something like an assault case) won't show up in court, or testimony is drastically different than what was expected.

Whatever the outcome, recognize that the preliminary trial is just one step in a complex legal process. It's also a tool - you and your attorney can use it to gauge the strength of the prosecution's case against you, and either build your defense from there or use weaknesses in the case to negotiate a plea bargain that's more to your advantage. For more information, contact Medeiros & Associates or a similar firm.