If you have received paperwork from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which includes a Criminal Complaint, an Affidavit of Probable Cause, or a Preliminary Hearing Notice, you have been charged with a crime. The first two documents detail the charges and their underlying probable cause, while the third document gives notice of a mandatory court appearance known as a preliminary hearing. So what exactly happens at a preliminary hearing?
First, the preliminary hearing is not a trial nor is it outcome-determinative. The preliminary hearing is the prosecution’s first opportunity to present evidence and testimony in support of the criminal charges against a defendant. Unlike a trial, the prosecution does not have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt at a preliminary hearing, and must only establish a prima facie case, which is 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).
Second, any evidence presented by the prosecution must be accepted as true by the Magisterial District Judge. The court does not judge witness credibility at this hearing, and the court must accept the testimony of all Commonwealth witnesses as true. If this low burden is met, as it usually is even when based upon the weakest evidence, the case will move to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
Because a defendant will be required to make important and irreversible decisions at the preliminary hearing, they should consult with and seek representation from an experienced criminal defense attorney like those at Powell Law. The preliminary hearing is a criminal defendant’s first opportunity to engage in some level of discussion or negotiations with the prosecution.
A preliminary hearing may also be the only chance a defense attorney will have to cross-examine witnesses before trial, creating a record that can be used if a case proceeds to trial. This is also critical in preparing the case for future litigation, whether in an effort to attack the credibility of a witness at trial or suppress evidence. At a preliminary hearing, an attorney has the right to call witnesses on behalf of a criminal defendant, as well as address any deficiencies in the prosecution’s case and provide any potential mitigating circumstances for the alleged criminal behavior. An attorney will also protect a defendant from making costly errors at a preliminary hearing, such as testifying to facts that could be used later at trial to establish guilt. The attorneys at Powell Law are experienced in utilizing all of the above practices on behalf of criminal defendants.
Although attendance is mandatory, defendants have the option to “waive” a preliminary hearing, which is an acknowledgement that the Commonwealth can meet its burden at this stage and move a case forward. Although a waiver is not an admission of guilt, it relinquishes certain rights which cannot be restored later. Defendants should never waive any rights without first consulting a competent, knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.
Criminal defendants should only attend a preliminary hearing represented by an experienced criminal defense attorney. Powell Law has represented criminal defendants for over a century. Contact us online or call (570) 961-0777.