What is a Preliminary Hearing?
The Preliminary Hearing, or ‘prelim’, is held after the defendant pleads not guilty at the arraignment or initial appearance. You can think of it as a “trial before the trial” where the judge decides whether there is enough evidence to force the defendant to stand trial.
During the prelim, the judge will determine whether there is enough evidence for “probable cause” presented by the prosecution to convince the jury in a trial that the defendant is guilty.
“Probable cause” is a standard of justice, defined as having “reasonable grounds” to believe that a person has committed a crime. It does not prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”, it merely points to it.
This generally means that winning at a preliminary hearing is more difficult for the defense side than winning at the trial, however not impossible.
What to Expect at the Preliminary Hearing
First and foremost, you will need proper counsel to advocate for you if you plead not guilty and your case goes to a Prelim. The accused has the constitutional right to a criminal defense lawyer at the preliminary hearing. If the defendant is unable to afford counsel, the court must appoint a public defender.
A preliminary hearing is the first adversarial step in the criminal process, where the defense and the prosecution go head to head.
Preliminary hearings are generally longer than arraignments, but are much shorter than trials. Typically a prelim will take anywhere from a half an hour to two hours. Some prelims may only last a few minutes.
The hearing takes place in front of the judge alone. The goal of a preliminary hearing is to weed out weak cases and protect defendants from unfounded prosecutions.
At the prelim, the defense can check out the government’s evidence. Typically, both the defense and prosecution will not ‘show their whole hand’. The defense isn’t required to show any evidence since the burden of proof lies on the prosecution.
The information discovered by the defense in prelim is crucial and will determine ultimately whether the case is settled with a plea bargain or continue to trial.
Preliminary hearings are usually conducted in a courtroom open to the public. The defendant’s family, friends, any victims or victim’s families, the media, or anyone else interested may be present in the rear seating section of the courtroom.
In unique cases, the judge may decide he or she wants a closed courtroom. The reasons could be for added security or privacy.
A preliminary hearing typically has one of three possible outcomes:
- Go to trial: The defendant is “bound over” for trial on the original charge.
- Charges are Reduced: Usually if the charge is a felony, the judge may reduce the charge to a lesser felony or a misdemeanor.
- Case Dismissed: Some cases are dismissed. However, the prosecutor has the option of re-filing later.
Not Every Case has a Preliminary Hearing
A preliminary hearing may not be held in every criminal case in which a “not guilty” plea is entered. Most of the time preliminary hearings are only held when a felony is charged. Otherwise the case may wind up in a plea deal, being deferred or dismissed by your defense attorney.
The prosecuting attorney may offer the most favorable plea offers prior to the preliminary hearing, before they invest more time and effort in the case. On the other hand, if the hearing turns out good for the defense, you may be able to negotiate better terms, or have the case dismissed altogether.
We’re Here to Help
A criminal arrest is not something you should or can take lightly. Not only do you stand to face a number of legal penalties, but you could also face other long-lasting consequences. We cannot stress enough the importance of retaining a lawyer to fight your case ASAP. We’re here to help. Give us a call if you’ve or your loved one has been arrested in Southern California.
Need an Early Intervention Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529
Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Criminal Defense Attorney who has over 20 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.