The preliminary hearing in a criminal case follows the preliminary arraignment and is the second stage of a criminal prosecution in state court. It must be held within 14 days of the preliminary arraignment if the defendant is in custody and within 21 days of the preliminary arraignment if the defendant is not incarcerated. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to protect the defendant's right against unlawful arrest and detention.
Where is it held?
Although the preliminary hearing can be held before a judge in the court of common pleas, it is normally held before a neutral magistrate at a magisterial district court. For example, preliminary hearings for criminal cases originating within Pittsburgh city limits are held at Pittsburgh Municipal Court (a.k.a. "City Court"), which is attached to the Allegheny County Jail.
What are my options?
Generally, the defendant has two options at the preliminary hearing: (1) waive the case to the court of common pleas OR (2) proceed to a hearing. A waiver may be the preferred course of action if the Commonwealth is withdrawing/reducing charges or agreeing to a bond reduction in exchange for the defendant's waiver. Otherwise, it is in the defendant's best interest to have a hearing and confront the witnesses against him.
Why should I have a hearing?
One of the biggest advantages to having a preliminary hearing - other than potentially having the charges dismissed if the Commonwealth fails to meet its burden - is it gives the defendant an opportunity to create a record of the sworn testimony of the Commonwealth's witnesses. This testimony is transcribed by a court reporter and memorialized in a preliminary hearing transcript, which can be an invaluable tool for the defense at trial.
What is the standard of proof?
At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth need only establish a prima facie case, which is a much lower standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt." Essentially, the Commonwealth must present enough evidence to show probable cause that the defendant committed the offense(s). If a prima facie case is established, the charges are "held for court" and the case is scheduled for formal arraignment at the court of common pleas. If the Commonwealth fails to establish a prima facie case, the charges are dismissed.
Do I have a right to an attorney?
The preliminary hearing is the first "critical stage" of a criminal prosecution, meaning the defendant has a constitutional right to counsel.
Should I hire an attorney?
The preliminary hearing is an extremely important stage in the criminal process. An effective preliminary hearing can result in a dismissal of charges or, at the very least, the creation of a preliminary hearing transcript that can be invaluable at trial. On the other hand, a botched preliminary hearing can leave the defendant in a significantly worse position than before.
For those reasons, if you have been charged with a crime and your case is scheduled for a preliminary hearing, it is imperative that you speak to a criminal defense attorney immediately.
Charged with a crime in Western PA? Call or text Bishop Law at (412) 589-9422 to speak to an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer.
You can't afford to go into court unprepared and unprotected. Contact us today.