What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing in PA?

by | Apr 20, 2022

A preliminary hearing is a criminal court hearing where prosecutors present evidence to demonstrate they have enough evidence that a crime occurred and that you committed it. They could present testimony, photos, dashcam footage, and other physical evidence. Your PA criminal defense lawyer can also introduce evidence as part of your defense at this time.

However, in Philadelphia specifically, your preliminary hearing usually happens a few weeks after your preliminary arraignment, which is when bail is set. However, a preliminary hearing can coincide with your preliminary arraignment in some PA counties.

In This Article

A Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer explains what happens at a preliminary hearing, including its purpose, burden of proof standards, legal rights, and more. Shuttleworth Law wrote this post for the accused or their loved ones to help them learn more about the legal situation they face.

What Is the Primary Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing?

The primary purpose of a preliminary hearing is two-fold. The court determines if a crime occurred and whether there is probable cause to try you for the crime, also known as a prima facie case.

If probable cause exists, the court will hold you for the next phase. Otherwise, they could discharge you that day or significantly reduce the charges.

Prima Facie and the Burden of Proof

Prima facie cases only require prosecutors to meet probable cause standards, which are much lower than criminal trial standards. Criminal trials require prosecutors to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt.

This information is essential to understand since the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s burden of proof is very low during a preliminary hearing. In Latin, prima facie translates to “at first sight,” meaning that prosecutors only need to demonstrate that it looked like you committed a crime.

Can I Be Found Guilty at a Preliminary Hearing in PA?

No, you cannot be found guilty or innocent at a preliminary hearing in PA since it is not the setting for it. You will also not face sentencing or penalties either. The court is only trying to determine if sufficient evidence exists to try you for the alleged crime.

When Does a Preliminary Hearing Occur?

Preliminary hearings typically occur within two to three weeks after your arrest unless postponed or continued. It occurs before a Magisterial District Judge (MDJ), typically where the crime allegedly happened, except for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where cases initially go before a Municipal Court judge.

Related Article: Why Hire a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer?

What Are My Rights During a Preliminary Hearing in PA?

You have important legal rights when facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania. At a preliminary hearing, you have the right to:

  • Be represented by counsel
  • Confront witnesses through cross-examination
  • Make a stenographic record of the proceedings
  • Examine any physical evidence presented against you
  • Testify in one’s own defense
  • Remain silent

If you hire a PA criminal defense attorney, we can explain your rights and fight for you at a preliminary hearing. We will also prepare for the preliminary hearing and determine if getting charges dismissed or a full discharge is possible.

Related Article: What Is a Misdemeanor in Pennsylvania?

What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing in PA?

The events following a preliminary hearing in PA depend on the outcome. If prosecutors do not have a prima facie case, the MDJ will discharge you per 234 Pa. Code Rule 543. However, in cases where the Commonwealth met its burden, the judge will hold you for court and move to the next phase of the case.

In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, misdemeanor cases go directly through their municipal court systems. On the other hand, felony cases head to the Court of Common Pleas after a preliminary hearing.

Regardless of where your case goes, you can expect typical events that occur during the pretrial phase, such as:

  • Bond hearings
  • Pretrial conferences
  • Motion hearings
  • Discovery
  • Investigations
  • Plea negotiations
  • Trial preparations

Your attorney will prepare you in advance for each step in the pretrial phase and communicate new findings and relevant details throughout the process. They will also protect your case and legal rights to give you every fighting chance at walking free.

Can You Get a Preliminary Hearing Continued?

Yes, you can get a preliminary hearing continued per 234 Pa. Code Rule 542. However, you must have a good reason, such as the need for a lawyer, a death in the family, failing health, or a need for investigation. Your criminal defense lawyer can discuss this issue and help you to get a continuance if necessary.

Related Article: What is a Felony in Pennsylvania?

Can I Waive My Right to a Preliminary Hearing?

Yes, you can waive your right to a preliminary hearing under 234 Pa. Code Rule 541. However, you must be represented by counsel to use this option since doing so will significantly impact your case.

Examples of when you may want to waive your right to a preliminary hearing include:

  • Avoid bad publicity
  • Mitigate damage when guilty
  • Putting the brakes on your case for a good reason
  • Unavailable witnesses
  • Exchange for the dismissal of charges
  • Exchange for the lowering of bail
  • Other reasons

Due to the impact on your legal rights, you should only move forward with a waiver if you understand what you are doing and why. The bottom line here is that you should never waive your preliminary hearing unless you can get something out of it! Experienced and trustworthy legal advice will provide clarity.

Preliminary Hearings Are a Chance to Learn More

Your criminal defense attorney may think that it is critical to attend a preliminary hearing since it is the first opportunity to preview the prosecutor’s case. Our primary objective is to obtain as much relevant information as possible, document the evidence presented, and maybe even get your charges dropped.

Sometimes we can set up the case to shape the facts for important pretrial motions, like motions to suppress evidence, by asking the right questions to bring the truth to light. Although those motions happen later in a case, the preliminary hearing is the first opportunity to start laying the groundwork needed to get a good result later.

Other times, we lock witnesses into their statements at the preliminary hearing so that if they testify differently later we make them look like they’re not telling the truth like they don’t remember facts, or that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Needless to say, this is an important proceeding in your case.

Learn More with a Free Case Evaluation

You have a short window to secure legal representation between now and your preliminary hearing. The Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer at Shuttleworth Law will move quickly to make the most out of this vital hearing. A well-executed defensive strategy will set the stage for the rest of your case.

Shuttleworth Law welcomes the accused and their loved ones to contact our office for a no-cost, no-obligation discussion. Call us to schedule your Free Case Evaluation at (215) 774-1371 or message us online.

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