Preliminary Hearings: You Can’t Win

In Pennsylvania, preliminary hearings are held before local Magisterial District Judges in criminal cases, ranging from DUI charges to cases involving homicide and other serious crimes.  But such hearings do not result in a “winner” or “loser” in most instances.

The purpose of a preliminary hearing in a criminal case is for the court to determine if there is sufficient evidence to connect the criminal defendant to the crime charged.  Almost always the prosecution will be able to make that connection (otherwise charges would not have been filed in the first place).  The prosecutor need not prove guilt at this stage; only that there is enough evidence to hold the defendant for trial at a later date.

In rare cases a judge may dismiss the charges at the preliminary hearing stage – such as where the prosecution presents no evidence placing the defendant at the crime scene, and the defendant produces convincing evidence of being elsewhere – but this is rare.  In most cases the judge will set bail and bind the defendant over for trial at the county courthouse, where the prosecution then must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as determined by a jury of the defendant’s peers.

For the criminal defense attorney, however, the preliminary hearing can be an important opportunity to get a preview of the prosecution’s case to see the quality of the evidence and the witnesses that might be faced down the road.  In smaller cases the preliminary hearing is sometimes waived in exchange for dropping some of the charges or allowing the defendant to enter  a first-time offender program.

-Kevin Palmer

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