Criminal Cases: The Preliminary Hearing

It is difficult to be a criminal defendant. If the defendant is ultimately found guilty of the crimes for which he was arrested then few people have compassion for the hardships endured by the defendant while he was standing trial. However, for defendants who are arrested for a crime which they did not commit, a criminal trial can be a real burden.
 
For that reason, there are many stages to a criminal case that are designed to protect the rights of criminal defendants. One of the stages that is most important to protecting the rights of criminal defendants is the preliminary hearing.
 
What is a Preliminary Hearing?
 
It is the role of the judge in a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence against the defendant to go to trial. Judges use the probable cause standard when deciding whether the case should proceed to trial. In other words, the judge must decide if the government prosecutors have enough evidence to convince a reasonable jury that the defendant has committed a crime.
 
There are parts of a preliminary hearing that resemble a trial. Both the prosecution and the defense are likely to make arguments to the court about why or why not a trial should proceed. The government may call witnesses and introduce evidence at a preliminary hearing and the defense may cross examine the witnesses and refute the evidence.
 
Other issues such as those about jurisdiction may also be decided at a preliminary hearing. If, for example, the defendant does not believe the case has been brought in the right state or federal court then the judge may decide that issue at the preliminary hearing.
 
When is a Preliminary Hearing Held?
 
In states that conduct preliminary hearings, the hearing is usually held as soon as possible after the defendant is arraigned. Some states require preliminary hearings for all cases in which the defendant enters a plea of not guilty and other states only require preliminary hearings if the defendant is charged with a felony.
 
Alternatives to a Preliminary Hearing
 
Some states use a grand jury system instead of a preliminary hearing. A grand jury system is a group of ordinary citizens who listen to the evidence produced by the government prosecutors and determine whether or not there should be a trial.
 
It is important to remember the objective of a preliminary hearing. It is not the judge’s role at the preliminary hearing to decide whether or not the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the alleged crime(s). Instead, the judge must only decide if there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime(s). Even if the judge does find probable cause that the crimes were committed by the defendant and the case proceeds to trial then a jury may still find the defendant not guilty on all counts.
 
If the judge finds that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the crime(s) then the case is usually dismissed. If probable cause is found then the matter will proceed according to the rules of the court for the jurisdiction in which the case is being heard.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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