A preliminary hearing is a legal proceeding used in some states where the judge determines whether there is probable cause that the defendant has committed the crime that they are charged with committing. If the judge finds that probable cause exists, the defendant is held to answer for the charges and the case proceeds to trial. However, if the judge finds that no probable cause exists, the charges are dismissed.

What Occurs at a Preliminary Hearing?

At a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor presents evidence and witnesses that establish probable cause that the defendant committed the crime charged. The defendant may cross-examine witnesses and may present his own evidence to prove that there is no probable cause that he committed the crime.

Once the judge looks at all the evidence and listens to the arguments presented by both sides, the judge will then decide whether the defendant should be forced to stand trial.

Are There Preliminary Hearings for All Criminal Cases?

No. Most jurisdictions hold preliminary hearings only when the defendant is charged with a felony. Other jurisdictions use a grand jury indictment instead of a preliminary hearing. Some jurisdictions require both a preliminary hearing and a grand jury indictment before the case will proceed. A preliminary hearing may also be waived.

What Are the Differences Between a Preliminary Hearing and a Trial?

Preliminary hearings are different from a trial in many different ways:

  • Preliminary hearings are much shorter and less time-consuming. The typical length of a preliminary hearing is only a few hours, while a trial can take weeks.
  • The preliminary hearing is decided by only a judge, where a trial may be decided by a judge or a jury.
  • The burden of proof on the prosecutor is much lower for a preliminary hearing than for a trial.
  • The main purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is enough evidence to force the defendant to stand trial while a trial is meant to decide the defendant’s guilt.

Is a Preliminary Hearing Beneficial for a Defendant?

A defendant can benefit from a preliminary hearing because the defense attorney can determine how strong the prosecutor’s evidence is, who the witnesses are, and what the witnesses will say to prove the prosecutor’s claim. The defense can also determine how strong the prosecutor’s case is against the defendant. If the defense finds out the prosecutor’s evidence, witnesses, and case is weak the defense may then want to proceed to trial and reject any plea agreements that is offered to the defendant by the prosecutor. The prosecutor might even give a better plea bargain knowing that the defense knows that the prosecutor’s case is weak.

Sometimes, a judge may decide that there is no probable cause to even force the defendant to stand trial.

What Can I Do If I Have an Upcoming Preliminary Hearing?

If you are accused of committing a crime or have an upcoming preliminary hearing, you should speak to a criminal lawyer immediately to learn more about your rights, your defenses, and the complicated legal system.