Your Guide To Pennsylvania Preliminary Hearings
Sometimes, the first time you find out that you are being charged with a crime might be as seemingly uneventful as finding an envelope in your mailbox. Some people find out that they are being charged with a crime because they are arrested by the police, booked, and brought before a judge. For those who are not arrested, law enforcement may file non-felony criminal charges by way of a “Summons” in the mail from the court.Seeing your name on documents titled “Criminal Complaint” or “Preliminary Hearing Notice” can be the start of an overwhelming and life-changing process. A preliminary hearing will soon follow. Even if you did nothing wrong, this must be taken seriously and addressed quickly to ensure the best possible outcome for your future.
If you are charged by mail, you are likely to receive your preliminary hearing scheduling notice in the mail as a packet of papers, along with a “Criminal Complaint” and an “Affidavit of Probable Cause.” At this moment, it is important to understand one crucial thing: if you received this paperwork from a Pennsylvania court, it means that you have been charged with a crime. The fact that you received charges by mail does not mean the charges are not serious; some Pennsylvania misdemeanours filed by mail can carry up to 5 years in jail. The date listed in the preliminary hearing notice is your first court hearing, and you must attend. You are now a criminal defendant, possibly facing jail time, probation, or fines, and you will be called upon to make critical and irreversible decisions at your preliminary hearing.
In order to help to begin to navigate this process, take a look at this guide to Pennsylvania preliminary hearings. Most importantly, if you have not yet consulted with an attorney who specializes in criminal law, it is important that you do so immediately.
What Is A Preliminary Hearing?
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to ensure that the prosecution (the Commonwealth) is able present enough evidence and testimony to support the criminal charges against you. This is not your trial, but it is an important hearing where a judge has the power to dismiss your charges if the Commonwealth cannot produce actual evidence that you committed the offense(s) you were charged with.
Your attorney will help you to understand the standard of proof at the preliminary hearing, which is unfortunately quite low: the Commonwealth only needs to present testimony and evidence which, if accepted as true by a jury, could prove each element of the offenses charged. The court does not decide credibility at this stage, the court has little power to consider your side of the story. For that day only, the court must accept the testimony of all Commonwealth witnesses as if it were true.
If this burden is met, the case will proceed to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings. Only an experienced attorney can help you understand how this hearing fits into the bigger picture in your criminal case.
At this hearing, you may be asked to make serious decisions at this hearing, some of which may involve waiving rights or creating a record that could be used against you later. Your attorney will use the preliminary hearing to frame how the entire case moves forward, making it critically important to have an experienced attorney on your side at this stage.
What To Expect At Your Preliminary Hearing
A typical preliminary hearing may take anywhere from a half hour to several hours., Some last only a few minutes, but even a short preliminary hearing can be critical do your defense. Preliminary hearings are conducted in front of a judge alone, without a jury. The judge does not rule on whether you are guilty or not guilty, but simply whether the charges against you can move forward.
At your preliminary hearing you can expect that the Commonwealth will call witnesses to testify and present evidence. Your attorney will be able to cross examine those witnesses and may object to improper testimony or evidence. You and your attorney have the right to call witnesses on your behalf, and your lawyer may present argument to the court. Most people do not call their own witnesses at a preliminary hearing. You should only attempt to testify or call defense witnesses at a preliminary hearing after a thorough discussion with an attorney.
You might also expect that your attorney might be in discussions with the police and prosecutor at or before your preliminary hearing. Sometimes, your attorney might speak with you about moving your case forward without a hearing or “waiving” the preliminary hearing in anticipation of some future benefit. If you appear without an attorney, you will most likely be approached by the other side about whether you want to waive your hearing. A waiver is a serious decision with lasting consequences, and it requires careful consideration and discussion with an attorney.
Defenses At A Preliminary Hearing
Having an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent you at your preliminary hearing is absolutely essential. A preliminary hearing is not a trial, but it may be the only chance your attorney will have to cross-examine witnesses before trial.
Your attorney will use careful cross examination at the preliminary hearing to create a record that can be used to your benefit if your case goes to trial in the future. An attorney will also protect you from making critical mistakes at the preliminary hearing, such as testifying to facts that could be used against you later.
Given the low burden of proof, the prosecution often wins the day at the preliminary hearing with even the weakest evidence; however, a skilled attorney will know how to use the opportunity it creates to set your case up for success when it really matters: in front of a jury.
Bail Motions At The Preliminary Hearing
The judge at your preliminary hearing may also consider whether to set or adjust bail. If it is your first court appearance, the judge will be required to set some form of bail in your case. This can range from releasing you on your own recognizance (ROR) to cash bail (Secured), or even remanding you to prison without the opportunity to post bail (Remand). Your attorney’s proper presentation of your case at a bail hearing allows the judge to more thoroughly consider the facts of your case, as well as your background, in setting bail conditions. Your attorney will know how best approach this issue with the judge, to ensure the most reasonable bail conditions possible.
What Does It Mean To “Waive” My Preliminary Hearing?
Although you must attend court on the day of your hearing, you do have the option to “waive” your hearing, which basically means that you acknowledge that the Commonwealth could meet its burden at this stage and you agree to have your case move forward. Although a waiver is not an admission of guilt, it does involve giving up certain rights that cannot be restored later. Only an attorney can advise you as to whether it is in your best interest to waive your preliminary hearing, and doing so without counsel could be a serious mistake.
In helping you make this decision, your attorney will consider the possible benefits of a waiver in terms of a future ARD applications, plea negotiations, and sentencing. However, your attorney will also be able to advise you on how opportunities to build your defense may be given up by waiving the right to a hearing. There is no set answer as to whether you should waive your preliminary hearing- only a skilled criminal attorney, knowing the facts of your case, can help you make that decision.
What Can Happen Next?
After a preliminary hearing, the case may move on to formal arraignment. Formal arraignment is a hearing in which a judge or commissioner will advise the defendant of the charges that are filed by the prosecutor in a “Criminal Information,” the defendant will formally enter a plea (almost always not guilty), and the defendant will be advised of certain trial rights. Assuming the defendant pleads not guilty, they will usually be given a notice of the next court date before leaving the Formal Arraignment.
In some Pennsylvania counties, the formal arraignment is nothing more than a paper proceeding. In fact, many county courts allow you and your attorney to file a document that excuses your appearance if you have counsel. In other Pennsylvania counties, local policies require that you make critical decisions at a Formal Arraignment. This may include the decision to accept or reject programs such as ARD, or even the decision to accept or reject a plea offer. An increasing trend in some Pennsylvania counties is to seek “efficiency” by putting pressure on criminal defendants to resolve cases at the arraignment. If you do not already have an attorney, it is essential that you consult with and retain qualified criminal defense counsel before attending your Formal Arraignment date.
Contact Colgan & Associates To Be Your Criminal Lawyer Representative Today
If you have a preliminary hearing scheduled, contact the law firm of Colgan and Associates immediately to speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can represent you in this matter.
When charged with a crime, your whole life is on the line. The time to meet with a criminal defense attorney is as soon as you receive your preliminary hearing notice. You and your attorney may need time to prepare for the hearing in advance. This is why you don’t want to wait until the last minute to schedule a meeting with one of our criminal defense attorneys serving the PA area.
Call us at <a href=”tel:717-790-2048″>(717) 790-2048</a> for a no obligation free phone consultation.