I got a preliminary hearing notice and I’m not sure what to do next
Seeing your name on this paper for the first time can be scary and overwhelming. It will likely arrive with a copy of the Criminal Complaint and Affidavit of Probable Cause. In Pennsylvania, this means you have been charged with a crime. If you have not reached out to a criminal defense attorney, you need to. At this initial stage, your attorney will have their first opportunity to discuss your case with the Assistant District Attorney or police officer involved in your case. It is your first appearance in court and you are required to be there. If you have received a summons in the mail, bail will be set at your preliminary hearing.
This is not a phase where the judge determines innocence or guilt. There is no requirement that guilt is to be proven without a reasonable doubt at a preliminary hearing. The Commonwealth only needs to establish a prima facie case. “A prima facie case consists of evidence, read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, that sufficiently establishes both the commission of a crime and that the accused is probably the perpetrator of that crime.” Commonwealth v. Keller, 823 A.2d 1004, 1010 (Pa.Super. 2003). The Commonwealth’s only objective at this level is to present evidence that shows “sufficient probable cause that the defendant committed the offense.” Commonwealth v. Keller, 823 A.2d 1004, 1010 (Pa.Super. 2003). Simply speaking, The Magisterial District Judge only needs to decide that, if all the evidence presented were true, there is a likelihood that a crime was committed and that you, the defendant, committed that crime. Any witnesses that testify for the prosecution are assumed to be giving a true account of the events. An argument can be presented to the court on your behalf. This step in the process could be the most important part of your case because it lays the groundwork for how your case will continue.
Your attorney may advise you to waive your right to a preliminary hearing if it is in your best interest. This does not mean you are guilty. It simply means that you acknowledge that the Commonwealth could meet its minimal burden of providing evidence that you may have committed the crime. Sometimes waiving the preliminary hearing can be beneficial to ARD acceptance, plea negotiations and sentencing, making it even more important to have a skilled criminal defense attorney standing with you.
If your offense is classified as a third degree misdemeanor or below, you may decide to plead guilty at your preliminary hearing. Regardless of whether you plead guilty at the preliminary hearing or at the Court of Common Pleas, there can be lasting consequences; things like the loss of your driver’s license for drug cases involving a small amount of marijuana or simple possession, to fines and costs and points on your driving record if the case is traffic related. It is crucial to get an experienced and knowledgeable attorney to guide you through this process.
All cases start with a preliminary hearing and most cases will be bound over to the Court of Common Pleas. It is a significant step in the process and it is important to have an attorney on your side to help you navigate through the court system.