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What Happens at the Preliminary Hearing?

Preliminary hearings serve to protect the defendant from baseless or unsubstantiated criminal charges. They are designed to ensure that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to allow a criminal trial to proceed. These hearings are much shorter than trials, lasting from half an hour to several hours, depending on the complexity of the case. Preliminary hearings are decided by a judge, not by a jury.
The preliminary hearing, which occurs three to ten days after the arrest, is normally held before the Magisterial District Judge (“MDJ”), whose court is located in the jurisdiction where the alleged crime occurred. In Pennsylvania, there are more than 500 Magisterial District Judges located throughout the state. In the large metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Municipal Court Judges preside over preliminary hearings on all criminal cases in Allegheny and Philadelphia Counties.
It is important to note that a Preliminary Hearing is not an actual trial. The Court will not determine the guilt or innocence of an individual at a Preliminary Hearing. The Court will only determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold a case for trial. The purpose of a Preliminary Hearing is simply to determine whether or not a crime may have been committed and whether the defendant who is before the Court may have been committed that crime. In contrast to the “beyond all reasonable doubt” standard for the burden of proof for the Commonwealth in a criminal trial, all that the Commonwealth must prove is a prima facie (“at first sight”) case or, simply, that, on the mere face of the evidence, it appears that a crime may have been committed by the defendant.
If you are the victim of a crime in which a suspect has been arrested, you will be expected to appear as a witness at the preliminary hearing. A subpoena will be issued to you by the MDJ or delivered to you by the police department investigating the crime. You will have the opportunity to speak with the police officer and/or representative from the District Attorney’s office before the preliminary hearing.
Although the police officer may act as the prosecutor at the preliminary hearing before the MDJ, in most Pennsylvania counties, the District Attorney will usually appear and present the case on behalf of the Commonwealth, especially when the charges are of a more serious nature.
At a Preliminary Hearing, the prosecution will present a very simplified version of the case against the defendant. Typically, both the defense and prosecution tend not to put on so much evidence that they reveal their entire case. The Commonwealth will present witnesses, which may include police officers, alleged victims, or other individuals with information that the prosecution considers vital and pertinent to the case. The defendant, through counsel, has the right to cross-examine these witnesses. At the conclusion of the Preliminary Hearing, the Magisterial District Justice/Municipal Court Judge will make a decision as to whether the Commonwealth has presented sufficient evidence to support the fact that a crime may have been committed and whether the defendant may have committed that crime. The Magisterial District Justice or Municipal Court Judge will make a decision as to whether the Commonwealth has met its burden for each crime charged against the defendant. If the Court decides that the burden has been met, then the case will be held for trial and transferred, for full and final adjudication, to the Court of Common Pleas for the county in which the Preliminary Hearing was held.
For the foregoing reasons, it is evident that it is exceedingly rare to have a criminal case dismissed at the preliminary hearing stage of the proceedings. However, much benefit may be derived from this proceeding. The defense attorney may gain knowledge of the strength of the prosecution’s evidence; the persuasiveness and credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses; and how solid the prosecution’s case as a whole is.
It is significant to note that, despite its abbreviated and less formal nature, a Preliminary Hearings still affords the defendant very important rights, including: 1.) the right to be represented by counsel; 2.) the right to confront witnesses against the defendant through cross-examination; 3.) the right to remain silent; 4.) the right to make a recording of the proceedings (usually through the use of a court reporter); and the right to testify in one’s own defense.
The attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can assist you or your loved ones in representing you in your criminal case. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.