If you are preparing for a preliminary hearing in California, it is important to know what the next steps are. And if this is your first time facing the accusation process, our first suggestion is to find legal representation if you don’t have it already.
While a preliminary hearing can sound intimidating, there are few things to worry about at this particular stage. First, you need to remember this is not a trial, and you cannot be found guilty yet.
However, the objective of this hearing is for the judge to consider if:
- There is probable cause that a crime was committed
- There is enough probable cause to believe you were the one who committed it
The most common outcome is to get bound over for trial. However, an experienced defense attorney can take the opportunity to get the charges dropped or dismissed. In those cases, no further hearings are necessary.
What Is a Preliminary Hearing?
According to California Courts, a preliminary hearing is an arrangement (or pre-trial hearing) that decides whether or not there is enough evidence to move forward with the criminal case. As such, it’s held before trial and before a judge only.
You cannot be found guilty at this point. The judge can only decide if there is enough evidence to hold you for trial, and there are several reasons why a judge might not allow charges to proceed at this stage, for instance:
- If there was no probable cause for arrest
- If the police did something wrong during their investigation (like illegally searching someone’s home)
- If they didn’t follow proper procedures during the questioning of witnesses
These hearings can also be beneficial to your case. An experienced attorney can use them to discover which evidence the prosecutors hold or cross-examine witnesses.
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When Is a Preliminary Hearing Held?
You are entitled to a preliminary hearing if you are arrested for a misdemeanor or felony crime in California. And it must take place within 10 days of your arrest.
At this hearing, the judge will decide if:
- There are reasons to believe a crime was committed
- There are reasons to believe it was you
Your lawyer can advise you to waive the preliminary hearing for strategic reasons. However, this is rare since preliminary hearings can also help develop a better defense.
You Do Have Rights at a Preliminary Hearing
Getting legal representation is important because that is the best way to ensure your rights are respected.
During a preliminary hearing, you have the right to be represented by a lawyer, confront and cross-examine witnesses, and present witnesses on your behalf.
Your lawyer will also question the evidence against you. If it’s insufficient, they will make a plea for the case to be dismissed.
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What Happens During a Preliminary Hearing in California?
Both the prosecution and defense will present their evidence and witnesses. The standard of proof is lower than on a real trial since the judge must only determine if there is a probable cause. That means the evidence presented doesn’t need to be substantial.
- The prosecution will present its case: They can even call witnesses to support their claim. For example, if you’re charged with driving under the influence (DUI) after being involved in an accident, one of your passengers may testify that they saw you drinking before getting behind the wheel.
- Cross-examination: During this stage, your attorney has the opportunity to examine the witness and look at the evidence presented. That is important since it can help them assess the case, and it also can help prepare a better defense.
After the prosecutors present their case and your lawyer has a chance to cross-examine witnesses, the Judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to hold a trial or if they can dismiss the case.
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What Happens After the Preliminary Hearing?
The most probable outcome is to get charged. In that case, all further proceedings regarding this case will be moved to a trial court within the next 15 days. If imposed with additional charges, you will have to appear at a new arraignment (or hearing) for those.
If that is your case, your next steps should be preparing a pre-trial motion.
While most preliminary audiences end up with the judge finding probable cause to charge you, there are a few instances when the outcome is different.
Other Possible Outcomes of a Preliminary Hearing
Preliminary hearings can have various outcomes, depending on the circumstances of your case.
- No probable cause is found. That could happen as a result of the court’s own findings or your lawyer’s intervention. In those cases, the charges can get dismissed.
- No probable cause is found for some of the charges, but it does for others. In these cases, some of the original charges can get dismissed.
- You are found to have committed other offenses. That could happen as a result of the evidence presented by the prosecutors. In those cases, more charges can get added to the original complaint.
- Reduce felony charges to misdemeanors. If you don’t have any prior convictions, or If the judge finds your offense to be a not-so-severe one, they can reduce the felony charges to misdemeanors.
Other Benefits of a Preliminary Hearing: Resolving a Case by a Negotiated Plea
A preliminary hearing gives the chance to both the prosecutors and defendants to assess how a trial would develop. And in many cases, that could mean the difference between the parties coming to an arrangement or not.
Sometimes, the defendant or the prosecutors realize they don’t have a case strong enough to go to trial and decide to settle for an arrangement.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you have never gone through the court process before, you likely have many questions about what the preliminary hearing portion is about. We can provide the answers you need.
- Can I Be Sent to Jail After a Preliminary Hearing?
- Is a Preliminary Hearing a Good or a Bad Thing?
- What Is the Main Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing?
- Can I Waive My Preliminary Hearing?
- If This Is Not a Trial, Do I Need a Lawyer?
- Can I Be Set Free for Good After a Preliminary Hearing?
- Who Must Attend a Preliminary Hearing?
- What Questions Does a Judge Ask During a Preliminary Hearing?
No. Even though a preliminary hearing is, in most cases, the beginning of a longer process, you cannot be sentenced at one.
A preliminary hearing can be used by an experienced attorney to reduce charges or even dismiss the whole case. However, lack of preparation or new evidence presented by the prosecutor can also increase the charges or the sentence. As always, the best advice is to get a lawyer as soon as possible.
According to the Department of Justice, a preliminary hearing is meant to defend your rights against any unfounded criminal accusation, making sure the prosecutors have enough elements to allow a criminal trial to take place.
Under exceptional circumstances, your lawyer may suggest you waive this preliminary hearing. But in most cases, it could be your best chance of developing a solid defense.
Even if this is not yet a trial, a lawyer can mean the whole difference between facing a trial court and walking home. It can also mean the difference between you staying incarcerated or being on monitored home confinement while the case proceeds.
Yes. Even though it is rare, it is possible that your attorney can point at inconsistencies such as lack of witnesses, no probable cause for arrest, or poor procedures during the questioning of witnesses.
Only the representatives of both sides need to be present. In some cases, witnesses may also be required.
There are many types of questions a judge can ask during a preliminary hearing, for instance:
- Was the accused in the company of someone else?
- What was the witness doing before they noticed the incident?
- Had the witness been drinking or using any drugs?
- How was the incident reported to the police?
Criminal Defense for California Crimes
If you are being charged with a felony offense in California, or a loved one is facing a hearing, you must contact a lawyer as soon as possible. There are several things an experienced lawyer can do for you at a preliminary hearing.
Also, this is a very important step in your procedure since a lack of probable cause could even release you from a trial court.
Preliminary hearings can be confusing, but knowing what to expect and having an experienced attorney by your side can help. If you have questions about what happens at a preliminary hearing in California or about your particular case, contact the Simmrin Law Group.