An accused person in Pennsylvania has the right to a preliminary hearing with exception to those matters where a grand jury is used in a prosecution. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to prevent the Commonwealth (State) from unlawfully arresting and detaining someone for a crime which was either never committed or for which there is no evidence of the accused’s involvement.
At a preliminary hearing, the District Attorney must establish at least a “prima facie” level of proof that a crime was committed and that the accused person was the one who committed that crime. This is a substantially lower level of proof then that required at trial which is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At a preliminary hearing the district attorney must present legally competent evidence which connects the accused to a crime regardless of the crime.
Unlike at a trial, hearsay evidence is admissible at a preliminary hearing. Hearsay is an out of court statement offered for the truth which usually takes the form of another person’s words but can also be documents for which there are some exceptions (medical documents, business records). Hearsay is an extremely complicated legal topic and the purpose of this article is not to explain it.
Law students and attorney’s themselves struggle with the concept frequently but it’s important to keep in mind that a witness can only testify based on their observations. They can’t testify about something that was told to them by another person. The primary reason behind this concept is the issue of reliability as to what was actually said. While there are exceptions to the hearsay rule those exceptions are beyond the scope of this short article.
While the Commonwealth (District Attorney) can present hearsay evidence during a preliminary hearing, it can’t base its whole case on that hearsay evidence. In Pennsylvania, many prosecutors have argued that the recent case of Commonwealth v. Ricker allows them to freely use hearsay evidence. While this is true, an older case, Commonwealth v. Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, specifically says that fundamental due process prevents the prosecution from presenting a case solely based on hearsay evidence.
Preliminary hearings are important because they not only present an opportunity for the defense to get a look at the prosecution’s case but also allow the defense an opportunity to get charges dismissed or downgraded. Criminal charges based solely on hearsay evidence can’t be held for trial provided that your criminal defense attorney makes the proper argument and is obviously aware of the case law cited in this article.
If you are charged with a drug or gun crime, a preliminary hearing is especially important because strong defense questions can set up potential pre-trial motions such as motions to suppress evidence and motions to quash. All of these pre-trial motions are important defense tools in any criminal case.
In closing, waiving a preliminary hearing usually isn’t a good decision unless the prosecution is going to dismiss charges based on that waiver or offer the defense some attractive plea deal. If you have more questions about preliminary hearings I invite you to visit the free resource section of my website.