When someone is arrested in Pennsylvania and charged with state misdemeanor or felony crimes, the first court date that they will have to appear at is called the preliminary hearing (excluding the Philadelphia Court system). This will be scheduled in the magisterial district court that covers the area where the alleged criminal offense occurred. At the preliminary hearing, the accused has the right to be represented by counsel. Therefore, he can retain private counsel or if he cannot afford an attorney, a public defender will be appointed to represent him. The preliminary hearing is critical for many reasons.
The preliminary hearing serves as a sort of gate-keeper to the criminal system. At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth has the burden of proving 1) the elements of each crime that allegedly occurred, 2) that the crime occurred in the county in which it is being prosecuted, and 3) that the accused is the person who committed it. All of this must be shown by “prima facie” evidence. This is a low burden and can be equated with “more likely than not”. If the Commonwealth meets the burden, the charges are “held” for court, and the case will move to the Court of Common Pleas to be assigned for trial. If the burden is not met on some or all of the charges, those charges or the entire case will be dismissed. An example of this would be the Commonwealth not proving the element of “driving” in a DUI or drunk driving case. Or, not proving the element of “possessing” a drug or controlled substance in a drug case.
The accused does not have all of the same rights that are available at trial at a preliminary hearing – still a skilled attorney can maximize the rights that are afforded to the accused. They can thoroughly attack the elements of the crime through legal argument and cross-examination. There is a limited right to cross-examination at a prelim, but the elements of the crime are allowed to be explored. Next, they can lock in statements of a witness through cross-examination. Finally, they can argue the law in order to show the deficiencies in the Commonwealth’s evidence.
This is not exhaustive. There are numerous considerations that go into a successful defense at a preliminary hearing. It is the starting point to having a strong strategy moving forward in a case and can have a major impact on how the case proceeds. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Pennsylvania and has a preliminary hearing scheduled, call Mike DiCindio directly and schedule your free consultation.
***This blog is made available by the law firm publisher for educational purposes and to provide general information, not to provide specific legal advice. By reading, you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The blog should not be used, nor is it meant to be, as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney.***