A preliminary hearing is typically held within three to 10 days after a person is arrested for a crime in Pennsylvania. A preliminary hearing will be held in front of a judge who works in the same area where the crime took place. It is crucial to understand the purpose and procedures surrounding a preliminary hearing.
Here, we will discuss how preliminary hearings work in Pennsylvania, but we need to stress the importance of securing assistance from an attorney if you have been charged with a crime. You need an attorney to represent you every step of the way, beginning from the moment you face questioning from law enforcement or prosecutors.
Explaining the Preliminary Hearing
Any time a person faces a criminal charge in Pennsylvania, this will result in them having a preliminary hearing, with the exception of summary offenses. This is commonly referred to as a prelim.
In Pennsylvania, the trial court for general jurisdiction in any county is referred to as the Court of Common Pleas. For criminal cases, only the court of common please can hear drug cases, DUI cases, and any other case greater higher than a third-degree misdemeanor. There is only one Court of Common Pleas in any Pennsylvania county.
In addition to a single Court of Common Pleas in each county, there will be several minor courts called District Magistrates. These courts are spread throughout each county, and they serve a small geographic region.
Any time a crime is committed in a county in Pennsylvania, the police will file a complaint with the District Court covering the geographic area where the offense occurs. This starts the case and leads to the preliminary hearing.
The preliminary hearing before a magisterial district judge will act as a gatekeeping of sorts. It is the job of the court to determine whether or not the evidence outlined in the complaint from the police officer is sufficient enough for the case to move forward. A judge will look at two specific things in these scenarios:
- Whether the evidence presented in the prelim is sufficient to form probable cause that a crime was committed, and;
- Whether the evidence presented at the prelim is sufficient to form probable cause that the individual in court committed the crime.
In every criminal case in Pennsylvania, someone with the District Attorney’s office will bear the burden of proof for demonstrating that a crime was committed and that the individual and court committed the crime. However, the police officer may be the one to present evidence at the prelim.
Any individual who has been charged with a crime has a right to have an attorney at their preliminary hearing. During the hearing, the District Attorney’s office has the right to call witnesses who testify about what they saw or what they know related to the case. An attorney for the defendant will have a chance to cross-examine these witnesses. Physical evidence can also be presented at the prelim, and the person charged with a crime will have the right to inspect this physical evidence. The defendant can also call their own witnesses at the preliminary hearing.
It is important to understand that preliminary hearings do not determine guilt or innocence for the person facing the crime. This will only determine whether or not the case will move forward to trial. There are more relaxed rules when it comes to what type of evidence is allowed at preliminary hearings.
Individuals do not have to have a preliminary hearing, and cases can go directly to the Court of Common Pleas if defendant waives their right to a preliminary hearing.