What’s The Purpose Of A Preliminary Hearing, Anyway?
If you have been charged with a criminal offense, you will eventually receive a notification in the mail advising you of the time and place of your preliminary hearing. The problem, though, is that you may not understand the purpose of a preliminary hearing or what occurs there. Most important, you may not be aware that, with the help of competent attorneys like us here at Tibbott Richardson, a preliminary hearing is the first place in which you can vigorously challenge your case – and possibly even obtain a dismissal of the charges.
First, you are probably wondering where preliminary hearings are held. This may be at one of several locations. Some are held at the local Magisterial District Justice Office or, alternately, may be held at the local county courthouse (often called “Central Court”) or even at a local prison.
It depends on the county in which you were charged.
Second, you are likely trying to figure out what the purpose of a preliminary hearing is and are asking yourself “what happens at these things?” The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for the government to establish what is known as a prima facie case against you. Relatively speaking, this is a low burden of evidence. It requires only that the government prove that a crime has occurred and it is more likely than not that you were the individual that committed the crime. Despite this low burden, charges can be dismissed at this level.
To establish a prima facie case against you, the government will proffer the arresting police officer as a witness and attempt to use his testimony to establish the case against you. This will be done in one of two ways. The first way is that the District Attorney will call the police officer and question him on direct examination. Alternately, because the presence of a District Attorney is not required at a preliminary hearing, the police officer may call himself as a witness and testify, without the presence of the District Attorney.
In cases like DUI, the District Attorney (or the arresting officer if no District Attorney is present at the preliminary hearing) will attempt to introduce evidence such as a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) test against you and the arresting officer will testify as to your driving, performance on the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (if applicable) and any other relevant information. After the government proffers their witnesses, your attorney may then cross-examine them.
At this point, you may question whether you even need an attorney at the preliminary hearing level. After all, the burden is rather low. Despite this low burden, it is very important and highly recommended that you do obtain counsel for your preliminary hearing. As criminal defense attorneys, it is our job to vigorously challenge the evidence against you, beginning with the preliminary hearing. Even in cases in which you feel as though there is no chance that your DUI charges can be challenged, this is not always the case. An arresting officer’s report is not in any way determinative of whether your charges will be bound over in the Court of Common Pleas. For example, in order that the District Attorney or the arresting officer is permitted to introduce the BAC results at the preliminary hearing, certain procedures must be followed. If such procedures are not followed, it is my responsibility as a criminal defense attorney to object to this evidence to prevent its improper admission. Also, if properly handled, testimony at the preliminary hearing can be used to pin down the officers and any other witnesses to their testimony so that they are unable to alter it should your case go to trial.
Additionally, it is my responsibility to eliminate or minimize the evidence against you so that your case is resolved in the best way possible. This can be done only if you have a highly trained and competent attorney by your side. I personally have undergone the same training that police officers go through with regard to many facets of DUI. With this specialized training and knowledge, I am extremely well equipped to cross-examine an arresting officer in your DUI case so that there is no stone left unturned and each piece of evidence against you can be vigorously challenged, beginning with your preliminary hearing.